The Revolution Must Be Accessible, Part 1: Image Descriptions

This piece started as a Twitter thread on Dec 3, 2017 — International Persons with Disability Day — and first went up on our Medium page. Heads up for a gif in the next page scroll down and a food picture later on.

When I was six, I struggled with iritis. It’s a type of uveitis affecting your iris. Like any other kind of uveitis, it can lead to vision problems and even loss. Having had several flare-ups of this over the years, I’m always nervous when it comes to my annual ophthalmology visit. I face other issues with my vision, too, making those annual checks even more concerning and anxiety-inducing.

All it takes is my juvenile arthritis or other conditions attacking my eyes to put me in danger again.

Because of that, I’ve become a bit of a stickler for adding in image descriptions.

Why is this important?

Look, screen readers can’t ‘read’ the photos of your cats you put up on Facebook or Twitter. That means that any cuteness you want to share gets missed by people with health issues affecting their vision.

When you leave out image descriptions, you become inaccessible. You say, knowingly or not, that your convenience or haste is more important than fully sharing something with another person.

There’s a lot more I could say, but the important thing is this: We have to start adding in descriptions to your photos and gifs to be fully accessible, regardless of your cause or photos.

Accessibility starts with those who care enough to participate in it.

Social Media

As much as we all seem to have a love-hate relationship with Twitter, they do a little better on accessibility around photos than other social media outlets. There is an option on Twitter to add in descriptions under settings > general > accessibility.

Turn this on! Make sure to actually utilize it. There’s no use in having that turned on if you’re not going to use it.

I use gifs a lot and wasn’t sure how to be accessible for a while. The new 280-character tweets, though, make this easier! I add a description at the end of the tweet or in the next tweet (connecting them as a reply/thread).

Here’s an example of one way to describe a gif:

(Gif: Wayne Brady in a long sleeve grey shirt dances against a colorful background, captioned “Yaaay!!”) 

With famous figures, most people tend to know who you’re talking about. You could add in that he’s black or that this gif is from Whose Line Is It Anyway? if you want. There’s really no wrong way to do these things.

On Twitter, once you’re doing more replies, you can’t add a description attached to a photo. That pisses me off. There’s still a way to be accessible, though!

In Twitter replies, just like on gifs, try adding in the description at the end of your tweet or in a subsequent tweet. In Twitter replies, on Facebook, and elsewhere, it’s helpful to insert an image description for full accessibility at the bottom of your writing in those square brackets, like so:

picture of Kirsten (white, nonbinary, short dark hair) wearing headphones in front of a mic smiling
[picture of Kirsten (white, nonbinary, short dark hair) wearing headphones in front of a mic smiling]
For Facebook, the best way to add descriptions is in square brackets at the bottom of your post like this:

screenshot of a facebook post - "/food/  I feel way too excited about my gluten free cupcakes right now... especially because these turned out absolutely perfect despite getting fancy and adding peppermint.  [Photo of chocolate cupcakes in a silver cupcake pan on a stove with a purple-backed white caption: "when ya make gorgeous GF cupcakes"]"
screenshot of a Facebook post: “/food/ I feel way too excited about my gluten free cupcakes right now… especially because these turned out absolutely perfect despite getting fancy and adding peppermint. [Photo of chocolate cupcakes in a silver cupcake pan on a stove with a purple-backed white caption: “when ya make gorgeous GF cupcakes”]”

Sites

On places like Medium, consider adding the image descriptions as captions for the photo. They don’t allow you to put in descriptions outside of captions or additional text.

On blogs or other sites, you can either handle this through captions or you can utilize alt-text for this (which is what I tend to do here). This even raises your SEO score and can make your page more likely to show up higher in search results as well.

If you have WordPress, there are accessibility plugins to explore for maximum accessibility. There are even themes more suited to accessibility. Choosing these makes ensuring access easier for you and makes your site easier for people with a variety of accessibility needs.

What to Include

I often have people ask what to include in image descriptions. I used to try to add text that covered anything and everything from the photo in great detail. Sometimes, less is more, though.

The best answer is to focus on the subject of the image.

Use gender-neutral wording for people in pics (unless you know pronouns/gender). When adding in skin color or ethnicity, use ‘X appearing’ or ‘X passing’ unless you know that person’s ethnicity.

Here’s a good example:

Selfie of Kirsten (white non-binary person with a stereotypical queer haircut in a black sports bra) wearing aviators and making a duckface inside a Total Body Enhancement machine
[Selfie of Kirsten (white non-binary person with a stereotypical queer haircut in a black sports bra) wearing aviators and making a duckface inside a Total Body Enhancement machine]

And an animal-focused one:

Jaq — a brown and white guinea pig — in a tan carrier with red lining is getting petted and has looked up quickly (so he’s blurry) at the camera
[Jaq — a brown and white guinea pig — in a tan carrier with red lining is getting petted and has looked up quickly (so he’s blurry) at the camera]

And here’s a non-living thing one:

4 square gummies, 3 capsules, and 9 pills of varying colors spell out the word ‘fuck’ against a white countertop background
[4 square gummies, 3 capsules, and 9 pills of varying colors spell out the word ‘fuck’ against a white countertop background]

We can all do better

I tend to not add descriptions to photos I post on Instagram or Pinterest. Most people think of those as picture-focused mediums and don’t think of it. I also don’t do this on videos and I should, at least for background information. I am going to work on doing better in both of these areas, and I hope you join me.

If you’re ever sure whether or not something is accessible, just ask. If ever you feel the need to run stuff by someone, I’m always happy to help provide guidance or look for answers when I can.

Once you start, it’s easy to work in other social media avenues and become far more accessible. That way, everyone can join in on the fun — and the revolution.

Further reading