Making your social media content accessible to the visually impaired

We all want our social media content to be seen by more people, the first thing you can do to attract attention for your posts is to include a photo or other graphic element. The importance of adding one of these visual components, cannot be underestimated. A quick Google search will yield a myriad of articles with tips for creating compelling and engaging social media content, and the first thing most will mention is adding an image. Here are just a few statistics to get you thinking:

Linkedin posts with images have a 98% higher comment rate on average

Tweets that include visual content are three times more likely to get engagement

Facebook posts with photos get more likes and comments

This is a great tip, but most of us are already posting photos with our content, but did you know that you are missing out on an entire segment of your potential audience by not posting your images with image descriptions and alt text? Taking a few moments to add a description of what the image that you are posting contains can open your content up to a whole new audience.

Image descriptions

Technology users who are blind or visually impaired often rely on screen readers to describe what is on their screen. Screen readers are built right into most operating systems, including Windows, Mac, and all recent smartphones. The screen readers will read texts, posts, emails and just about everything else. They accomplish this task deftly, even reading the text in a meme. Where most screen readers fall is when they are required to describe an image. Recent advancements will often deliver something like “may be an image of a tree by a lake” instead of the dreaded “image description not available” which was a hot button for many a visually impaired user. While the tree by a lake description is better than nothing at all, as a content creator, you are passing by an opportunity to share your service, product, or art with a new audience. What if a photographer could utilize image descriptions to tell a bit more about their image, and in the case of the tree image described above say something like: “a tall pine tree stands next to a small lake covered with lily pads and ducks under a blue sky with light fluffy clouds”? The person hearing about the image is going to enjoy the description a lot more than a stark tree by a lake description. 

Those who sell products online are also missing out. Imagine a visually impaired customer listening to a listing about a dress that says: blue dress, the size and the price. I don’t know about you, but that description would not sell me a dress. If the seller said something like: Knee length, blue chiffon dress with three pearl buttons at the neckline and open sleeves, I would be much more interested in the product with a better description. Even worse, many online stores just have “dress” or “image 1” as their descriptions.

As a longtime member of the blind community online and off, I know that visually impaired users who use screen readers will often pass by posts that do not contain image descriptions rather than engaging with the author.  

Image descriptions

An alt text description for an image should tell you there is a dog in the road, an image description should tell the viewer that there is a black lab with a stick in his mouth standing in the middle of an abandoned country road who is looking like he is ready to play. Both the alt text and the image description should be concise and give the reader/viewer information about the image without being overly poetic or including details not relevant to the image. Think about my description of the dog, in your mind you can see the dog on the country road, right? You can imagine what the stick looks like in his mouth and the addition of the information that this is a country road adds all the context to know that it is a rural looking environment without being overly descriptive. I don’t talk about the looming grey clouds in the distance or that the foliage is as green as the algae of an overgrown pond. If this was a landscape image and the clouds and the pond were primary components of the composition then yes, by all means include that information but in this case the dog is the primary subject matter and I was looking to get across the idea that he was on a lonely road and looking to play. Unlike alt text, image descriptions should be kept to 280 characters to maintain compatibility with most screen readers, but I try and keep mine to 240 for additional compatibility.

Talking about alt text

We all love to share our travel photography (myself included), and an image makes a social media post stand out from the crowd, but what if you can’t see the screen? In web design terms, alt text is meant to be used as a descriptor and placeholder with vital details about the contents of an image. This text is displayed in the event of an image load failure and search engines like Google index the contents of this field and factor it in when considering search engine ratings and viability for a website. Alt text should include the most important information about an image and should be no more than 125 characters to ensure compatibility with most common screen reader software. Any text contained in the image should be written out, especially if the text is a script or similarly difficult to read font. For sites like Facebook and Twitter, alt text is the primary way to describe an image for a blind or visually impaired user.

Things change

Social Media site features change incredibly fast. This information is current as of fall 2022 but be aware that the locations of menu items or the way you get to them can change.

Adding alt text is easy

Adding alt text to your photos on Facebook is simple, when adding a photo to your post click edit and you will be brought to the photo details page. Choose Alternative Text from the links on the left menu, this will open the Alt Text section. Here you will see an example of the alternate text Facebook adds to images, and an option to add custom alt text. Add your description and click save, that’s it.

Facebook alt text interface

Twitter

On Twitter, when inserting an image into your post, choose the +alt button at the bottom of your image. Twitter will let you know about alt text, and on the next screen you can enter your image description and click done. Now that you know how to add alt text to your images let’s cover some basics.

Instagram

When creating a new post, after the filter choices, on the New Post screen, choose advanced settings at the bottom of the list. On the advanced settings page scroll down and choose the write alt text option. 

 

What to include

  • Include the relevant parts of the image. Don’t include overly dramatic descriptions.
  • Describe the objects in the image, people, animals, vehicles etc.
  • Describe the emotions of the image, are they happy? Smiling? Sad? Lonely?
  • Colors of the objects in the image, red car, black dog etc.
  • Names of people, especially if thy recognizable.
  • Style of image, Landscape, portrait, dark light, cheery gloomy etc.
  • Describe the surroundings, country road, graffiti covered alley, crowded beach.

Do not include

  • Emoji or punctuation, dot, dot, dot… Question mark etc.
  • Don’t describe what the colors look like, don’t try and describe the color red.
  • Generally accepted facts like cars have two headlights, people have two eyes and a nose etc.
  • Don’t include descriptions of objects that are not part of the focus of the image, birds in the trees telephone lines etc. 

What if I do it wrong?

This is a lot to remember but learning to write useful image descriptions and alt text is a skill that can be incredibly beneficial to your readers. Don’t be afraid of doing it wrong, because in terms of image descriptions, something is better than nothing and you will get better at it the more you do it. I’d be happy to read an overly wordy description than wonder what is in an image included in an article. Nobody is going to call the disabled police on you for bad image descriptions, they are just going to be happy you are taking the additional time to make your content more accessible.

 

Descriptions added by you will be so much better than the ones generated by platforms like Facebook. Look at the photo of my guide dog Fauna above as an example. Facebook described the photo as dog – but in the image she is a black lab wearing an n-95 mask, a huge difference in the way the image is perceived to your audience. 

Another way to share your content

I see image descriptions as an opportunity to be able to present my work in a different way. Social Media platforms like Twitter only allow you 240 characters to describe your image, and sometimes an image deserves a more robust description than a simple caption will provide. Learning to write concise image descriptions for alt text can also teach you to describe your work in different ways, making your content more interesting for your sighted viewers.

How I create an image description

Don’t be overwhelmed by the thought of creating a description for an image, the next time you post an image take a couple of minutes to try this simple exercise. First, take a few moments to really look at your image. Determine what is important about that image, what draws your eyes to this image, think about what the primary subject of the image. Write that all down then turn away from your image and read your description, if you believe it accurately describes what is in your image, then look at it again. Determine if there is something important in the image that you missed before creating the description. Think about my description of the dog above, does your description offer the reader enough information to build a mental picture of your content without being overly poetic? Then you are done – good job.

Do I have to go back and include descriptions for all my images?

Depending on how long you have been creating content on your platform, whether Facebook Twitter or a website, the prospect of adding descriptions to all of your content can be a daunting undertaking. Start with the most important images on your site or the tweets that have converted the best for you. For a website, navigation images, logos and content in your most important and most viewed articles. Start today, the next time you post something on social media get into the habit of adding image descriptions, it only takes a couple of minutes. Even if your old content never gets descriptions, at least your future content will start becoming more accessible to everyone.

Image descriptions versus alt text

If you are running a website and have access to the full details for your media library, consider adding not only the alt text but image descriptions as well for your content. An alt text description for an image should tell you there is a dog in the road, an image description should tell the viewer that there is a black lab with a stick in his mouth standing in the middle of an abandoned country road who is looking like he is ready to play. Both the alt text and the image description should be concise and give the reader/viewer information about the image without being overly poetic or including details not relevant to the image. Think about my description of the dog, in your mind you can see the dog on the country road, right? You can imagine what the stick looks like in his mouth and the addition of the information that this is a country road adds all the context to know that it is a rural looking environment without being overly descriptive. I don’t talk about the looming grey clouds in the distance or that the foliage is as green as the algae of an overgrown pond. If this was a landscape image and the clouds and the pond were primary components of the composition then yes, by all means include that information but in this case the dog is the primary subject matter, and I was looking to get across the idea that he was on a lonely road and looking to play. Unlike alt text, image descriptions should be kept to 280 characters to maintain compatibility with most screen readers, but I try and keep mine to 240 for additional compatibility.

In a nutshell:

  • Alt Text: 125 characters
  • Alt text: There is a happy black dog in the middle of a country road.
  • Image Description: 240/280 characters
  • Image Description: There is a happy looking black lab standing in the middle of a abandoned country road with a stick in his mouth looking like he is ready to play.
  • Don’t include information that is not relevant to the viewer. The dark grey clouds and the bird sitting on the third branch might be interesting, but don’t add them if they aren’t the focus of the image. The dog, the environment, and the context are what is important.
  • Don’t make it overly poetic.
  • Why take the time to add alt text?
  • Social media is a competitive field and whatever you can do to make your content stand out can increase followers, and interaction with your audience.  
  • Search engine visibility, and increased rankings for proper alt text implementation.
  • It’s a nice thing to do and makes the content on the internet more accessible.
  • It gives you another venue to present your work to viewers.

Added Benefits

If you are a travel photographer like I am, I have found when I take the time to write descriptions of my photos, I appreciate the work more as well. I also have found myself noticing problems with an image that I had not noticed when doing my initial edits. Writing about your images will also help you to become more detailed about describing your work to others in conversation. This simple exercise can really improve the way you talk about your work with others. 

Learning more

If you are interested in starting to use image descriptions in your posts but you are still a bit unsure, one of the best places to look is on the Guide Dogs for the Blind Facebook page. Every single post has an image description and it is a great place to learn about wording your descriptions succinctly and effectively. Here’s a link and an example:

https://www.facebook.com/guidedogsfortheblind/

Did you find this article interesting or helpful? I’d love to hear your feedback and if you have any questions about implementing Image Descriptions or alt text into your work feel free to drop me a message on any of my sites or social media.

“Ted’s journey into the landscape of the human body is a marvelous celebration of all that is physical, sensual and diverse
” – FSTOPPERS

About the author

Ted Tahquechi is a blind photographer, travel influencer, disability advocate and photo educator based in Denver, Colorado. You can see more of Ted’s work at www.tahquechi.com

Ted operates Blind Travels, a travel blog designed specifically to empower blind and visually impaired travelers. https://www.blindtravels.com/

Ted’s body-positive Landscapes of the Body project has been shown all over the world, learn more about this intriguing collection of photographic work at: https://www.bodyscapes.photography/

 Questions or comments? Feel free to email Ted at: nedskee@tahquechi.com 

Instagram: @nedskee

Twitter: @nedskee


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