A picture is worth a thousand words: the importance of alt text

We hear from Stacy Scott, Head of Accessibility at Taylor & Francis, about the importance of alt text on visuals for those who are blind or have visual impairments.

As a blind Mathematics graduate, I could not have engaged in my study, had descriptions of pictures not been made available to me. Pictures are just as crucial as the written word, and this is no less so for someone who is unable to see the images through their eyes. So, authors must add the Alt text, to fuel the imagination, and help make their content inclusive to all.

There are many elements to accessibility and one of the biggest questions is, how do we make visual aspects such as images, charts and diagrams accessible to those who are blind or have a visual impairment? What are the consequences of not providing these descriptions?

Challenges for blind or visually impaired individuals in academia 

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The fact is, many potential students are still being turned away from subjects thought to be ‘too visual’. I am speaking from personal experience, as a blind Mathematics graduate, who was initially told I could not study the subject, due to me being blind and Maths having too many visual elements.

This attitude sadly still prevails in many parts of the world. Indeed, accessing subjects of such a visual nature, such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) will undoubtedly continue to be one of the biggest challenges faced by students, educators and publishers, due to their heavy reliance on pictorial detail and a lack of description.

What is alt text (alternative text)?

Alternative text, also known as alt text, is a written description of an image which users can access to make sense of the image if they can’t view it. Alt text sits behind the image, chart or graph, so it can be read aloud as it is encountered by a Text-to-speech (TTS) user, but it cannot be seen on the surface. Alt text is typically used to describe content requiring a shorter description and is often seen in social media, for example, describing a picture accompanying a Tweet.

I would not have been able to pursue a rewarding and varied career, had I been denied the opportunity to study the subject of my choice. Not describing a picture, may seem like a quick decision, with very little consequence in that moment, but consider… if pictures, images and diagrams are not described and not accessible, then the full content of the curriculum is not accessible. Such lack of access for a person, especially a person with disability social bias to overcome in the first instance, could have a detrimental effect on that person’s life, education, future work prospects, independence and livelihood.

When I was studying for my degree, I was fortunate because after discussions I found wonderful support. Every image, graph, and equation were described to me. This highlights the importance of alt text and the need for all content to be accessible, both for accessing content, but also for ensuring independence for readers.

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Taylor & Francis importance of accessibility: Tools and guidance

  • T&F introduced alternative text into our eBook workflows in 2020. Since, over 2100 titles have been published with alternative text so far, and this number is growing exponentially.

  • Long descriptions are also supplied where necessary, for example on more complex images. Long descriptions are more complex and where they sit within content can vary from publisher to publisher, vendor to vendor. These lengthier descriptions are often used in STEM subjects, describing complicated Mathematical notation; detailed graphs of nodes and vertices; or diagrams in a science or engineering book. It is argued that this content, in such complexity, should be described by the person who knows most about the content already, the author.

  • T&F felt that the level of expertise needed for so much of our content could only fairly come from the subject experts and so as part of this project, we launched accessibility guidance for authors and contributors. This is available on the Routledge website and contains a guide to writing alternative text, as well as several example images, grouped by subject category. This site supports authors and contributors with the submission of alternative text for images with their final manuscripts and is meant to be used alongside the existing Books Publishing Guidelines.

  • In 2020, T&F implemented an alt text classification in our Global Tracking (GT) database, so that we can track which titles contain alt text. This metadata is also fed externally to our third-party eBook sellers using our ONIX feed. Not all resellers currently have the capability to show this information, but you can view it on some platforms like EBSCO and Vitalsource.

  • In order to continue encouraging author-submitted descriptions and further highlight our work in this area, we introduced a new Outstanding Accessible Titles category for both HSS and STEM titles in the 2021 Annual Book & Digital Product Awards.

Whichever method chosen, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, but it doesn’t take a thousand words to open up your pictures and images to those who are unable to see them. Adding alt text, describing what your picture, diagram or graph shows, makes your content inclusive to everybody and can bring stories alive and make subjects easier to understand. Descriptions create pictures in the mind and for those who cannot see pictures, the imagination becomes the most powerful tool.

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Where to next?

If you’ve found these tips helpful, take a look at:  

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