A Word Worth A Thousand Pictures

With each passing generation, our society has become increasingly visual. And now, there is hardly a millennial or Gen Z who doesn’t go through the process of taking a photo and sharing it at least a few times a day. Cellular phones with cameras are now common, almost essential, rather than the novelty devices they used to be. And being in the information age, where things move at lightning speeds, it means that people no longer feel they have the time to send detailed messages about what they may be doing. Enjoying a nice dinner? Much quicker to take a photo of the delicious meal in front of you. Walking down the street and happen to catch sight of a particularly beautiful flower? No problem, your phone probably has enough storage for that one. Want a friend’s opinion when shopping for new clothes? Selfies are perfect for that purpose.

With the convenience of photos comes a million different ways to share them. Virtually every social media site nowadays supports sharing pictures, and some are even dedicated exclusively for visual forms of media like photos and videos. A photo is much quicker than typing a long string of words and is much more immediate of a way of sharing your life with your friends.

All these things are wonderful unless, of course, one can’t actually see the photos being shared. The increasingly visual nature of our society and communication methods means that anyone who is blind or partially sighted will have a harder time keeping up with sighted peers in knowing what family and friends are doing in their daily lives. Endless scrolling through Facebook, Instagram and similar will only go so far as letting someone know photos have been shared. But with screen readers still unable to identify images on their own, what’s the solution that will get us at least one closer to enjoying the beautiful pictures posted by sighted friends and family?

The solution is found in “alt-text”, a small block of descriptive text that is only visible to screen reading technology. Certain sites such as Facebook and Instagram attempt to automatically add alt text to images, so as to make the experience more accessible, but these results can be hit and miss. Not only that, but the AI (artificial intelligence) can only identify so many things, and descriptions are hardly ever detailed. This is where alt text is handy. While posting photos on any major social media platform, there will be an option to add alt text in the area where filters, effects, and other visual adjustments are done.

“But why does this matter?” you might ask. And it’s a fair question. If there’s automatic alt text, and if some people caption their pictures, isn’t that enough? The answer is “well, kind of.”

Automatic alt text is vague in many cases, such as labelling something as “food” rather than a particularly fancy meat and cheese platter. An image of the beautiful mountains we can see to the north of Vancouver may simply be labelled as “mountain”. And while some people leave detailed captions, those captions are quick thoughts or feelings, rather than detailed descriptions of the photos themselves. Alt text creates an unobtrusive option to help friends and family who are blind or partially sighted enjoy the same things as our sighted peers, without cluttering up the visual layout for people who just want to glance at a picture without having to get through too much writing. The fact is that it does, indeed, take an extra second or two to write up a quick description. But often times, that extra second may very well mean the bright spot in someone’s day.

Just as sighted people can be encouraged by a beautiful picture they see during a tough day, that same photo, if described with alt text, will more than likely be just as encouraging to someone who may have missed out simply because they couldn’t visually see the picture and in the end, will be one more small step in a direction that leads to a more inclusive world where blind and sighted friends and family can enjoy the same things together. So for my blind friends, let’s lead by example and whenever posting photos and add alt text whenever we are able. And to sighted friends and loved ones who may know people who are blind or partially sighted, remember that while a picture is worth a thousand words, to someone who is totally blind or can’t see pictures clearly, one piece of alt text might very well be worth a thousand pictures.

by Clement