This weekend, I had the opportunity to give a flash talk about writing media descriptions for current events as part of the Protest Access-a-Thon, an event hosted by a group called Protest Access that focuses on making content related to protests and current events accessible for users with disabilities. Below, I will be sharing links to the talk as well as a transcript, as well as other related resources from my website.
Hello everyone, and welcome to my flash talk on writing alt text and video descriptions for social media and current events! My name is Veronica Lewis, and I run the website Veronica With Four Eyes, where I have hundreds of posts dedicated to topics on low vision and assistive technology, including content on how to make media accessible for people who are blind, low vision, or otherwise visually impaired. This includes teaching people how to write alt text, image descriptions, video descriptions, and audio descriptions, as well as sharing the importance of having relevant and unbiased descriptions for media content. If you’re not familiar with any of these terms, don’t worry- I’m going to start this talk by telling you all about them.
What is Alt Text?
The first term I want to talk about is alternative text or alt text for short. Alt text is a text based description that is added to images that tells people what is in an image, such as people, text, or other essential details. Alt text is not typically visible to users unless they are using a type of assistive technology called a screen reader, which reads out the alt text verbatim- if an image does not have alt text, a screen reader will typically ignore it. Screen readers are used by many blind and low vision users who are unable to read printed text, and many popular devices have screen reading capabilities built-in- VoiceOver is available for iOS and Apple devices, and TalkBack is available for Android and Google devices. There are also screen readers for computers, though I typically use mobile device screen readers when accessing social media.
Some social media platforms provide automatically generated alt text for images that are posted, though they often provide inaccurate or inadequate details when it comes to describing images taken in less than perfect lighting conditions, crowds with lots of people, or other photojournalism images. Don’t get me wrong, I love that automatic alt text is available, but it usually doesn’t tell the whole story. Users can add their own manual descriptions of alt text when posting an image by clicking on the Alt text option within the photo editor- this varies depending on the social media platform, and I have a blog post all about how to add alt text to social media on my website that goes into more detail.
What are Image Descriptions?
I know that a picture can paint a thousand words, but most of the time, there’s only a few hundred characters available for writing alt text. This is where image descriptions come in. Image descriptions typically provide more detail than alt text, and are included within a post or the comments of a post, so that anyone can read them, not just someone who uses a screen reader. I have a fluctuating eye condition and don’t necessarily use a screen reader every day, so image descriptions give me the opportunity to fill in gaps of information that I might have when looking at an image or video with my eyes alone. An image description provides all of the same information used in alt text, but expands on it a bit more when relevant. Instead of just telling me that a woman is holding a sign that says “My life matters,” image description goes a step forward to tell me more about what that woman looks like, the expression on her face, the place where she is standing, and the colors or style of the sign. When creating extended image descriptions on social media, I recommend copy and pasting the description using a tool such as Pastebin, and sharing the Pastebin link in the replies or original post for those who want to read it. For shorter descriptions, users can write the phrase ID or image description and then add additional details.
What are Video Descriptions?
Image descriptions and video descriptions work the same way, as they are text-based descriptions of content that are shared either in the replies or in a text-based document for those who are unable to watch videos for many reasons. Video descriptions can also include transcripts of audio or descriptions of other noises in the background that users may otherwise miss out on, as well as descriptions of any actions or movements that are happening on screen. As a person who is very sensitive to strobe and flashing lights and that also has trouble hearing in crowded environments, I use video descriptions exclusively to get information about what is going on in amateur video of current events, since a lot of this type of content can contain flashing red, white, and blue lights as well as loud bangs and crowds. Audio descriptions are very similar to video descriptions, except that with audio descriptions there is a secondary narration track that provides information about visuals on the screen, and the audio itself is not described. I have a lot of audio description resources on my website, but this talk primarily focuses on alt text, image, and video descriptions.
Adding Descriptions To Social Media Content
Now that we know what these terms are, people may be wondering how they are supposed to use them when accessing social media. After all, accessibility tends to be the last thing on people’s minds when they are rapidly disseminating information, and descriptions for content cannot be generated as easily as captions can be, though I realize that auto-generated captions aren’t always perfect either. On Instagram, Facebook, and most website building platforms, users can edit alt text after they have posted an image by going into the image options and adding or editing the existing alt text, or they can edit a caption that has an image description or video description. Some social media platforms like Twitter do not currently let people edit alt text in an image they didn’t originally post, or in someone else’s post, so it can be confusing at first to figure out how an image can be made accessible. There are a few options for this- you can reblog or re-share the post and add your own alt text and image/video description, you can ask to repost with credit and add the descriptions, or you can reply to the original post with this information. You can also tag accounts or use hashtags to ask for image or video descriptions, for Protest Access and content related to protests on Twitter, this hashtag is Protest Access Request. While normally I am in favor of educating people in the comments about the importance of alt text and image descriptions, a lot of current events content is coming from primary sources that may not be in a place where they can create these descriptions or think about anything other than personal safety.
What to include when writing descriptions
So what exactly should be included when creating accessible social media content related to current events? While it can be tempting to over-describe images, it helps to think of writing descriptions in a way that feels natural for you to read out loud, or how you would describe an image or video in conversation. All alt text and descriptions should contain information about the setting of an image, the number of people or types of objects that are in focus, any text written exactly how it appears on screen, and any other critical information about the appearance of an image. For example, I might write a description that says “Two people dressed in all black wearing face masks hold up a sign that says Vote 2020 as they stand on the steps of the supreme court at night.” An image description might go into even more detail, and share information such as the race and gender of the people in the photo, more information about the sign, or similar information. If this was a video, additional information about background noise or anything that the people were saying should be written out as well. Unless the person has specifically identified themselves, do not share information such as names or precise locations, even if you recognize who is in an image, as this can be dangerous or lead to the images being used outside of their original purpose.
Pronouns and describing people
When it comes to pronouns, I will usually recommend using gender-neutral they/them pronouns if they are not otherwise given, or using terms such as “a person” or “the subject” in order to ensure that people are not misidentified. For example, if you didn’t know my pronouns and you were writing a description of me right now, you might write “A person with tinted glasses wearing a denim jacket, burgundy dress, and Saturn necklace looks directly at the camera. They are standing in a blank room and have a neutral facial expression.” If you knew who I was or if I was writing a description for myself, this could be rewritten as “Veronica stands in a blank room while wearing a denim jacket, burgundy dress, and Saturn necklace as she looks directly at the camera with a neutral expression.” Some might argue that since my clothing isn’t relevant to the video, it should be left out, but since there isn’t anything else that’s interesting here, I’m fine with including it for this video.
I also shared my clothing description because it highlights the correct way to describe colors and shapes- don’t be afraid of using color shade names or talking about shapes or objects that everyone knows. I know what red and burgundy look like, and I have a mental model of what what the planet Saturn looks like, so these don’t need any further descriptions. Viewers also don’t need to know that there is a shelf behind me, just like they wouldn’t need to know if there was a stop sign or parked car visible in the background of a video or image unless these items held some sort of significance.
With great description comes great responsibility
The last thing I want to touch on in this crash course about media accessibility is the importance of keeping descriptions objective. While I might think my Saturn necklace is awesome or that there’s a good reason for me to be standing in a blank room, I don’t need to include that information when writing alt text or image/video descriptions. The same goes for personal commentary on the events that lead me to standing in this blank room or the events that lead to people being involved in a protest, or the protest itself. Just like you form your own opinions when viewing media for the first time, give users the ability to form theirs without the influence of someone else telling them what to think. Don’t share speculations as to what may be happening in an image or provide a ton of background context, let the content stand on its own, and let users form their own opinions on it.
I’d like to end this talk by saying thank you for watching, and I hope that the information I shared here can be helpful for others who want to help make information accessible for everyone. If you have any more questions, you can visit my website at veroniiiica dot com or follow me on Twitter @Veron4ica, that is spelled v-e-r-o-n-the number four-i-c-a You can also email me at veron4ica at gmail dot com. Thanks for watching, and thanks for making social media content accessible for people like me!
Related links on Veronica With Four Eyes
- How To Write Alt Text And Image Descriptions For Photojournalism Images
- Options For Writing Extended Image Descriptions On Social Media
- Creating Audio Description For Primary Source Videos With YouDescribe
- A to Z of Assistive Technology For Low Vision
- How To Add Alt Text On Social Media