What I Talk about When I Talk about Alt Text

At Boundless we’re committed to breaking down barriers in education. If you visit our subjects page, you’ll find the full text of all 20+ Boundless textbooks available completely free for anyone to browse, study, and cite; if you test out our courseware, you’ll discover that we’ve created a powerful, flexible, and easy-to-use product that works across devices and learning management systems; and if you read Jodi’s blog post, “The Road to Accessibility,” you’ll learn about our ongoing efforts to provide a best-in-class experience for students with disabilities. We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re proud of the strides that we’ve made in 2016, and we’ll continue to make accessibility a priority going forward.

If you don’t know much about the field of accessibility (I’m certainly not an expert, but I’m learning), google “accessibility,” “usability,” and/or any related term. It’ll become clear to you that there’s a lot of work being done to convince people to care about creating more accessible products, places, and services. You’ll find countless pitches by accessibility advocates explaining how accessible website design, for example, benefits all users. Here are two great examples to get you started if you want to learn more: Haben Girma, “Disability & Innovation: The Universal Benefits of Accessible Design” and Elise Roy, “When we design for disability, we all benefit.”

While I don’t think an accessibility project needs to be universally beneficial to be worth pursuing, I do think it’s important to consider and acknowledge the various universal benefits of accessible solutions.

As a part of our larger, ongoing effort to create a better learning experience for students with disabilities, the Boundless content team recently completed an audit of our library to determine which images still require descriptive captions and/or alt text equivalents for students navigating the site with a screenreader. We’re now in the process of writing the descriptive captions and alt text equivalents where needed, so I’ve been thinking a lot about our content accessibility project and its universal benefits.

Here’s an example of an image with a descriptive caption:

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die.jpg
Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die.jpg

“Join, or Die” by Benjamin Franklin

“Join, or Die” by Benjamin Franklin is a woodcut showing a snake cut into eighths, with each segment labeled with the initials of one of the American colonies or regions. The cartoon was used in the French and Indian War to symbolize that the colonies needed to join together with Great Britain to defeat the French and Indians. It later became a symbol of colonial freedom during the American Revolutionary War.

And here’s an example of an image with an alt text equivalent for students navigating our site with a screenreader:

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TR-Chemist-1912.JPG
Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TR-Chemist-1912.JPG

“The Chemist” Roosevelt is depicted as “concocting a heady brew in his speeches” in this 1912 political cartoon.

Our alt text equivalent for this image reads:

The cartoon depicts Teddy Roosevelt as a chef. He is mixing ingredients into a bowl labelled “A Teddy Speech” with a question mark in parenthesis. He is mixing the contents of the bowl with one hand and pouring a bottle of liquid labelled “Progressivism” into the bowl with the other hand. A thought bubble next to the bottle says “The more you mix in, the easier to satisfy everyone.” Surrounding the bowl are bottles labelled “Any Old View,” “Radical Spice” and “Pure Democracy,” as well as a bowl full of eggs labelled “Conservative Views.”

The universal benefit of descriptive captions available to all students is more obvious, but what about the universal benefit of alt text equivalents that are only available to students using a screenreader?

The universal benefit of alt text is less obvious and harder to articulate, but I think it’s very powerful. As an editor I’ve learned that writing and reviewing alt text equivalents for complex images is more difficult than I expected; it isn’t always easy to accurately and succinctly translate the argument of a complex image into words. And while that makes our job on the Boundless content team more difficult, being forced to re-evaluate the pedagogical value of the images we use in our content pages increases the rigor of our editorial review process. Sometimes it takes tryingand failingto write a good text equivalent, for example, to realize that we need to delete an image altogether and find a better one to illustrate a particular concept. The result of this additional layer of review, of course, is a better product for all students.

As I reflect on this accessibility project, I’m curious about other people’s experiences: What have you learned in the process of working on accessibility-related projects? What do you talk about when you talk about accessibility? Comment below to continue the conversationwe’d love to hear from you.