Social media has a great ability to connect us. Without it, I would have never found all the wonderful people in the blindness community on Twitter that’s had such a positive impact on my life and would have never met such great folks as Amy. Heck, you probably found this post on some social media platform.
The problem for blind people is that social media can seem pretty photo-intensive, leaving blind people to feel like they’re missing out. In the last few years, though, major social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have been introducing features allowing people to add alt text to pictures, allowing people sharing content to provide a more inclusive experience.
What is Alt Text?
Simply put, alt text provides a text-based alternative to graphics on the web. Screen readers, which I wrote about in a previous post, will read the alt text and identify the item as a graphic when encountered. Additionally, many browsers will display the alt text for a graphic when it’s unable to load the graphic such as slow internet connections or being unable to locate the image.
Writing alt text
Writing good alt text can be a challenge. In my day job as an accessibility specialist for an online college, I describe writing alt text as an art rather than a science. While there are a few guiding principles based off accessibility best practices, there’s also a lot of wiggle room. The following tips are based off a combination of best practices and my own personal taste:
- Be concise. Screen readers take time to read things. How long depends on that person’s screen reader settings. An experienced screen reader user like myself may have theirs set to talk really fast, whereas a novice user is likely to have theirs set at a more conversational pace.
- Don’t describe every detail. Remember back in elementary school when you’d be asked to read something and determine what the main idea of the passage was? Do something similar with your images and describe what you’d like someone to take from it.
- Avoid redundancies. If something’s in the body of your post, it probably doesn’t need to be in the alt text. Additionally, remember how screen readers work. Since they will identify an item as a graphic when they encounter it, you don’t need to say so in the alt text. It’s fine to say something like “Picture shows” if you’re describing an image in nearby text content, but it’s just repetitive when it’s in the alt text itself.
Writing good alt text can be a challenge and may seem hard at first. Like anything else, though, it gets easier with practice. Over time you’ll figure out what works best for you.
How do I add alt text on social media?
The help sites for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter do a much better job of explaining how to add alt text to their posts than I can, so I’m just going to link to their respective help pages below:
If you use a third-party app to access social media, it likely has the ability to add alt text to your posts as well. Check the documentation for your app of choice or do a quick Google search and you should be able to find instructions.
Below you’ll find a few examples of alt text from tweets. I’m embedding the tweets. Below them, you’ll find the alt text for the images written out.
Note for screen reader users: You won’t hear the written out versions of the alt text below tweets. I’ve intentionally hidden it from screen readers since it will be read to you within the embedded tweets.
With the advent of alt text support on major social media platforms, it’s easier than ever to be more inclusive on those platforms. With just a little extra effort, it’s possible to ensure blind people aren’t left wondering what’s in a picture.