Lesson of the Day: ‘The Hidden Image Descriptions Making the Internet Accessible’

Featured article: “The Hidden Image Descriptions Making the Internet Accessible”By Meg Miller and Ilaria Parogni

Alt text, a written image description, can be read aloud or translated into Braille through screen readers, apps or browser extensions. For internet users who have low vision or are blind, alt text is an essential part of the online experience. However, alt text is not available on all websites, and the text itself is often inaccurate or inadequate in its description.

In this lesson, you will learn how companies and disability activists are trying to improve alt text. Then, you will edit one of the alt text examples from the article before writing an image description on one of your own photos or on a meme from social media.

Part 1: Observe

Scroll through the introduction of the article before you arrive at the title. What was your experience reading the image descriptions? Were you able to picture the images in your head? Why or why not? What was missing?

Part 2: Practice

Read Haben Girma’s post on Twitter: “How do you describe color to a #blind person? Yellow is the sun’s warmth on your skin & the mouthwatering tanginess of lemon cupcakes. Red is the complex sweetness of raspberries. Blue is… what would you say? ”

Using vivid and evocative language, describe the colors blue and green to a person who has low vision or is blind.

What was your experience describing those colors? How often do you see people including image descriptions, or alt text, on social media posts or museum exhibits?

Read the articleand then answer the following questions:

1. How does alt text function on most websites? Who is the target audience? Why is having an alt text option important?

2. As you scroll through the article, what do you notice about the alt text examples? What does alt text do well? What are some the issues with it, based on your observations and what experts in the article say?

3. How have individual websites, like Google or Facebook, tried to address alt text deficiencies? What about companies like Scribely and CloudSight that are dedicated to creating better versions of it? What do you think of the different approaches?

4. What are some of the experiences that Cynthia Bennett, a researcher at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, has had with text generated by artificial intelligence?

5. How are disability-rights advocates taking action? What are some of the things that they are encouraging people to keep in mind when writing alt text? How can you best make alt text relevant and engaging for people viewing your content?

6. How do artists like Bojana Coklyat and Shannon Finnegan address subjectivity, identity and representation in their workbook Alt Text as Poetry? What are two different perspectives on these issues, as presented by Thomas Reid, a voice actor and podcast host, and Brad Folkens, the chief executive of CloudSight? How do you feel about these issues?

Part 1: Edit alt text from the article

Look at the alt text for the image below.

Then, using the skills you practiced in the warm-up and learned from the featured article, write two sentences of alt text that would bring this image to life for a person who has low vision or is blind. Use language to help give the user a sense of the complete image, not just the individual objects in it. What is the main point or purpose of the image? Is there a tone, texture or feeling that it conveys?

You can share your edited alt text in the comments section of this lesson.

Part 2: Write alt text for one of your own social media posts

Edit one of your posts on Instagram or another social media platform where you have posted an image. If you prefer, you can use a meme, like the one in the article with descriptions by Gregory the A’ight. Consider the context, and incorporate expressive language that brings the reader into the experience of the image.

You can use these guides to learn how to embed alt text on Twitter and Instagram. If you’re a TikTok user, create a new video that integrates auto captions for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, but be sure to edit the captions to make sure they’re correct. You should also include an alt text explanation of your video in the description.

Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.

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