Accessible Images

The good news is that now it is very easy to edit the alt-text on your Facebook images.
What does that mean? Read on!

Posting images from your vacation or favorite restaurant is a fun part of using social media. For the most part, we agree with the maxim, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  But how many of us know what it is like to depend on words to describe the pictures we see? Do we know how those people who cannot see access the images we post on social media? Do we know anything about how to add text descriptions to our images for the visually impaired?

I believe that most of us who are sighted never give much thought about whether visually impaired people can access the images we post online or on social media platforms, like Facebook or Instagram. However, those of our friends who are visually impaired are confronted with this gap in communication all the time.

What is alt-text?

The way that visually impaired people “see” the images we post depends on the text descriptions of the images built into the post. We share images that have personal value to us but in order to understand the value we place in all those vacation or family reunion pictures, the visually impaired must have a description that captures what we see or read in the image. The funny meme we share is not funny when the image description says, “person, text.” The kitten, puppy, or baby is not so cute when the description says, “animal, person.” Now there is an easy way to add good descriptions for the visually impaired when posting images on social media platforms, so we need to learn how and get into the habit of doing it.

The images that we post and share need us (i.e., human beings) to add clear and valuable descriptive text to images on behalf of the visually impaired. This descriptive text is built into the code for every image placed online, through what is called, “alt-text.” Software “reads” and interprets the data including the alt-text embedded on images, and then a device called a “Screen Reader” reads these alt-text descriptions out of the browser code in order to convey meaning for our images so that the visually impaired can share in the understanding. Visually impaired individuals understand our social media posts via screen readers, which read to them the written text of posts and pages, as well as reading to them the alt-text descriptions embedded in the code for each uploaded image.

Putting alt-text in website code has long been an important standard for website creating. Writers of  browser code have been able to place alt-text into the code for images almost as long as images have been placed inline onto webpages. Come more lately however, was the thought—and later still, the standard—that alt-text would become an accessibility implementation for all websites and online platforms as an enablement for the visually impaired. Currently, this standard is moving toward inclusion on browsers, platforms, software, and all websites and online platforms. Many if not most, browsers or platforms are equipped to automatically add descriptions to images based on matching patterns and some improvements have been made in the quality of these matches. For example, now with computer-generated image description, a person is usually distinguished from a dog.

Why should I bother adding alt-text to images?

When human beings don’t add meaningful alt-text descriptions to images, even if the standard has been implemented on a particular browser or social media platform, such as Facebook, then the mechanistic, computer-selected descriptor will kick-in to supply the required alt-text. But a human communicator adding a description is always superior to a computer-generated meaning automatically added to alt-text. People create meaning; computers do not. Computers merely can scan and match one set of data with another. Computers can be instructed to look for complex patterns, such as those used by facial recognition software, but computers do not navigate on their own through the complexities of meaning and nuanced intention to replicate what we as humans can do easily. Humans are the true source of meaningful alt-text descriptions for their own images.

When no human being has submitted an image description, however, alt-text can and will usually be generated automatically by a social media platform or browser application to “describe” an image. But automatically generated text is robotic, simplistic, and flawed. The creator of a website page or writer of a post can, however, add into the code an alt-text description of what each image is on every webpage or social media platform post. Just ask yourself: How many of us would like to be dependent on those robotic computer-generated texts to know what is being presented visually in images?

Would you like the “Happy birthday” image you send your loved one to be read off on a screen reader as “flower, plant, text” or would you want the picture of your new baby to say, “1 person, closeup”? We are way too unaware of what are we communicating to our visually impaired friends through the graphics, memes, and photos we post every day on Facebook and social media.

How can I add alt-text on social media?

The good news is that now it is very easy to edit the alt-text as you post your Facebook images (and even to go back and edit the alt-text on images that you’ve already posted), so that all of your own images will be accessible to your visually impaired friends and followers. Other social media platforms besides FB also have methods of editing alt-text, although it may not always be as easy as FB has made it.

On Facebook, at least so far when using your computer or laptop, you can add your own alt-text description and override the automatically computer-generated text when you upload your photo and also, after you have uploaded the image. Here is a great article where you can find the details of the process on Facebook. But, basically, as you are uploading an image to FB on a laptop or desktop, hover over the little artist brush icon in the corner and click “Edit,” which brings you to a menu where you can adjust the image, tag it, crop it, and change the alt-text. Just click, “Alt-text” and then a pop-up shows a box with the computer generated text and a place to enter your own description of the image in 100 words or less. I have an example of this below:

screenshot 2019-01-28 12.53.12

As you can see, my description of “lonely burr covered in snow” is much more evocative of my reasons for posting this photo than, “plant, sky, snow, nature, and outdoor” would be. The ease of getting a description right for my visually impaired friends makes it much more accessible to non-coders and a process that everyone can learn to do. Making a habit out of adding the alt-text to each image gives me a good reminder of that when I post I am posting to an audience, not just to myself. The whole realm of people for whom I am posting my image is likely to include people for whom the alt-text might have importance. It never hurts to become more aware of your audience. Communication is all about targeting what we say toward the user or the audience.

FB’s method for changing the alt-text description on images that have already been uploaded is just as easy. If you go to the post, click on the image, go to “Options” (which shows below the image) and click, you will see, “Change my Alt-text” where you can insert a new alt-text description of your choosing for images that you already have posted. See below:

change alt text image

My new alt-text description for this image is much more useful than the previous one–“text”–and would serve my friends much better in trying to understand the image that I have posted.

Good alt-text descriptions are critical in the workplace

I am an Information Designer and post a few blogs about various topics, such as this one on how to make our lives more filled with kindness, but also I have blogs on Information Design, and a professional portfolio page. Additionally, I create websites for people and post pretty much daily on a FB professional page called, “Meme of the Day.” I have kept an eye on issues of visual accessibly and alt-text for websites, but have been waiting and occasionally checking to see if social media platforms would begin making it easier for users to have control over the alt-text descriptions that automatically post along with their images. I am so glad that FB has made this process easier for us, at least when using our laptops, and hopefully, will soon follow with an affordance for this implementation on phone app platforms as well. I strongly encourage us all to make our images more accessible to our visually impaired friends—both in our personal use of images on social media and in our workplace use of images.

The process of making images more accessible for the visually impaired is especially important for those of us who post online in ways that might be shared outside the circle of our own friends, our friends’ friends, or our workmates. We may not think we have any visually impaired contacts or friends, but we don’t know how our posts might be shared online and it takes so little time to add good alt-text descriptions to our images. Our friends, clients, customers, and others will notice and appreciate it. Since social media platforms have made it easier to find ways to add accessibility to our images, why wouldn’t we learn what it takes to make our posted images be understood by a broader audience? Why wouldn’t we make turn accessibility into a natural habit when posting both personally and professionally? Once learned, the process of taking accessibility into account will become a habit and our concept of audience will broaden to better match the world with which we want to communicate.

Posting good alt-text is, after all, a kind thing to do.

FYI for further information:

Click here for a great article about how to change alt-text on Facebook. 

Click here for one on adding/changing alt-text on Instagram:

How to set image descriptions on Twitter:

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