What is alt-text and why is it important?

What is alt-text and why is it important?

Alternative text, or alt-text, is a written description of an image online or embedded into a digital document. Typically, alt-text is accessed via screen reader, which is a type of software that reads the text of a web page out loud. Screen readers and alt-text allow people who are blind, low vision, or have other cognitive disabilities to access content freely. By writing quality alt-text, one centers disability culture and creates an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds. In addition to improving access, good alt-text can increase search engine optimization, making your content more discoverable.

Alt-text as Poetry

With the increase in digital offerings due to the Coronavirus pandemic I have become more aware than ever of the need for quality alt-text online. To be clear, this need is not a new one. Alternative text, or alt-text, came about in the 1990s and since then has been largely viewed through a lens of compliance with ADA regulations rather than with a focus on quality. Alt-Text as Poetry is an initiative by Bojana Coklyat and Shannon Finnegan to “reframe alt-text as a type of poetry” and foster a sense of belonging in digital spaces for users of alt-text. Coklyat and Finnegan offer tips, dos and don’ts, examples of quality alt-text, resources, workshops, and even an alt-text blog. In the spring the Poetry Center started offering online exhibitions and this is where I have done most of my learning about and writing of alt-text. Here are some of the things I have learned along the way.

Tips and Tricks

  • Keep your alt-text short; one to two complete sentences are typically enough.
  • Use concise and unambiguous language such as the colors and size of objects and people’s emotions and demographic information.
  • Any text found in the image should be transcribed using quotation marks.
  • Describe the foreground of an image first and the background last.
  • Keep in mind both the content and the function of the image when writing alt-text.

Things to Avoid

  • Do not include phrases like “this is an image of” or “this is a graphic of.”
  • Avoid using jargon. For example, one might describe a piece of paper as having a “deckled” edge but not include that the paper used was “Kitakata” paper.
  • Try not to repeat information found in captions or other fully accessible descriptions.

Additional Resources