With the new update for Instagram that allows users to add their own alt text and image descriptions to their posts, comic artists now have an opportunity to share their creations with people who are vision impaired. While it may seem difficult to write alt text for digital comics at first, it really doesn’t take that long to create alt text or image descriptions for your work. Here are my tips for how to write alt text for digital comics, from the perspective of a user with vision impairment.
This post is broken up into four sections:
- The first section is definitions of common assistive technology terms such as alt text, image descriptions, and screen readers
- The second section gets into the specifics of how to write alt text for digital comics
- The third section is how I prefer to read comics on Instagram as a vision impaired user
- The fourth section is how to add alt text and image descriptions to your posts, and why you shouldn’t rely on the automatic alt text feature
This post is adapted from two of my other posts on alt text for Instagram that I have linked below
What is alt text?
Alt text tells people what is in an image, such as text or basic essential details. If an image fails to load, alt text will display in its place. Search engines also index alt text information and consider it a factor when determining search engine ratings. This is a short description, usually only 1-2 sentences.
For a digital comic, alt text can be written with more detail compared to alt text that is written for an image on a blog, since the picture is the main focus of the post. It is strongly recommended that alt text be 125 characters or less to ensure compatibility for popular screen readers, as well as making sure a user doesn’t get bored from listening to a long alt text message, but this is not a strict limit.
What is an image description?
An image description gives more details than alt text and allows someone to learn more about what is in an image that goes beyond alt text. Alt text gives the user the most important information while image descriptions provide further detail. For example, alt text tells someone that there’s a puddle on the floor, and image description tells someone that the puddle on the floor is in the middle of the floor and it’s orange juice.
Users may choose to add detailed descriptions as the default alt text, or may add descriptions to the end of a caption so people can get more details if they want. Image descriptions can be longer than traditional alt text, but I recommend keeping them the length of a tweet, or about 280 characters.
What is a screen reader?
A screen reader, sometimes referred to as text-to-speech, is a form of assistive technology that allows people with vision impairments such as blindness and low vision to read digital information. Screen readers are built in to almost every smartphone currently on the market so that users can read text messages, make phone calls, interact with apps, and much more. When it comes to mobile users, a majority of blind and low vision users use VoiceOver on their iOS devices- read more about VoiceOver here.
What can screen readers read?
Screen readers can read almost anything that is displayed on a screen. Examples include:
- Text (in any form)- read more about texting with vision impairment here
- Pictures and graphs with alt text
- Emoji- read more about Emoji here
- Keyboards- read more about keyboards and vision impairment here
What can screen readers not read?
As you can tell, screen readers can do a lot of things, but it can’t do everything. Here are some examples of what they can’t read:
- Videos (though audio description does exist- read more about audio description here)
- Pictures or graphs without alt text or image descriptions
- Certain apps that are image-based
- Text in a photo without alt text
Screen readers need a little bit of help in order to be able to read information, so this is where users come in and write out their own alt text and image descriptions so that the screen reader has something to read.
How to write alt text for digital comics
Do I have to say what comic this is at the beginning?
No, the screen reader will read the name of the account posting the image before it reads the alt text of the image. So there’s no need to tell someone what comic they are reading, as chances are they already know that.
Introduce the character and say what they are doing
Who is in the comic today? Share the name of the character and what they are doing, or what pose they are in prior to sharing anything else. For example, if I was describing myself, I would write this:
“Veronica sits at her computer with a focused expression while typing a blog post.”
After introducing the character, share what their dialogue is
It helps for me to know who is saying something prior to knowing what they are actually saying. I recommend writing this text verbatim, but there’s no need to describe where the speech bubble is placed or any other details like that. Continuing my example from before:
“Veronica sits at her computer with a focused expression while typing a blog post. She then asks ‘where did my phone go?'”
(Luckily, I have a post about how to find your phone using technology here)
If the character is silent, describe what they are doing
If there are background characters or people that are important to the story, make sure to include them in your description. I prefer to have characters described in order of appearance from left to right, since that is how I naturally read things. Let’s add some more details to my example:
“Veronica sits at her computer with a focused expression while typing a blog post. She then asks ‘where did my phone go?’ Her friend is hiding behind her smiling as they take a bunch of selfies.”
Don’t worry about describing recurring characters every post
As you might have noticed, I didn’t describe what Veronica looks like because she would be considered a recurring character and it wouldn’t be very efficient to describe what she looks like in every single post. Also, most digital comics don’t have characters that change drastically in appearance from post to post anyway.
Now if I decided to make Veronica not be wearing glasses for a comic, I would make sure to note that because that would be something out of the ordinary that would impact my visual reference of the character. Here is an example of how I would describe that, taken from this post about how to deal with broken glasses here:
“Veronica is standing in a petting zoo next to a small black baby goat with large eyes. Suddenly, the goat grabs Veronica’s glasses with its mouth and runs off with them. Veronica attempts to chase the goat while not wearing glasses and runs into a bench.”
How I prefer to read digital comics as a vision impaired user
Have one panel in each image
I was really excited when Instagram provided users with the option to have multiple images in one post, since this made it infinitely easier for me to read digital comics. In fact, this is the only way I am able to read digital comics, since I am able to zoom in on details in individual panels. Most digital comic creators I know will add a version of the comic at the end of the post that features all of the panels stitched together so that the entire comic can be shared easily.
If possible, have a post that introduces the characters
Remember how I said there’s no reason to describe recurring characters in every single post? Many of my favorite creators have a post that describes the characters they use, what they look like, and how they act. Here’s an example of how I would describe myself in a comic:
“Veronica is a college student with short brown hair and large purple glasses with tinted lenses. She often wears floral dresses and walks with a blindness cane in most indoor and outdoor settings.”
Don’t put the introductory post on your story
As of right now, Instagram only supports alt text being added to personal posts, profiles, and items on the explore tab. For this reason, Instagram stories do not have the option to add alt text, so as a result I would recommend not putting the aforementioned introductory post with character descriptions on your story or in the highlights section.
For animated frames, write an additional image description
Some comic creators may include gifs or videos, which are not supported by alt text. For images like this, I would write an image description in the caption, which could be formatted like this:
[Image description- Veronica’s friend tries to hand her the phone, but since Veronica isn’t paying attention, the phone falls to the floor]
Adding alt text and image descriptions to Instagram posts
Should I use automatic alt text?
No, don’t use automatic alt text for a comic. While automatic alt text is awesome, it isn’t always the most accurate when it comes to figuring out what’s actually in a picture. For example, automatic alt text once interpreted a picture of my brother standing outside as being a picture of a car. Automatic alt text also doesn’t recognize text, especially text written in a foreign language, so comics need to have alt text written manually.
Adding alt text to a new post
Right before you publish a new Instagram post, there is an option under “advanced settings” to compose an alt text description for each individual image. You can type out your alt text here, or copy and paste it from another app.
Adding image descriptions to a new post
If you want to add a longer image description, add an open bracket at the end of your caption, add the phrase “image description:” and then type out/copy and paste whatever you want to add. If you have a slideshow of images, I recommend numbering each description, i.e “the first image has a cat sleeping, the second image shows the cat awake.” Make sure to add a closed bracket at the end!
Adding alt text to an existing post
To add alt text to an existing post, click on the three vertical dots at the top of the post, click “edit”, and then tap the “alt text” option that is directly on top of the photo, next to the “tag people” option. From there, you can add your own alt text and it will be saved to the photo.
Adding image descriptions to an existing post
To add a longer image description to an existing post, click on the three vertical dots at the top of the post, click “edit”, and then edit the caption following the same guidelines from the section “Adding Image Descriptions to a New Post.” Make sure to click the check mark afterwards to save your work.
I love being able to support creators and I appreciate the effort that digital comic artists put into their work. With these tips, users can learn how to write alt text for digital comics in less than a minute and share their work with an even larger audience.