03 Feb How to make an amazing visual experience for blind people
The poetry of alt-text
Did you know some blind people have stronger visual functions than sighted people?
How is that possible?
Vision doesn’t rely on eyeballs
Visual function is not located in the eyes, it’s located in the occipital lobe in the rear of the brain.
The eyes are the camera to capture the information through light onto the rods and cones, which get transmitted through the optic nerve to the occipital lobe. They may move over to the temporal lobe and be stored as memories.
I learned these things from Norman Doidge. Specifically, from his book The Brain that Changes Itself.
If their eyes are damaged or, like me, their optic nerve is scarred, the visual functions can still be activated in other ways. Usually, and this is where alt text comes in, it is activated through their ears – through sound. But words can also be detected through braille and ‘felt’ or in some cases of quadriplegia, through the tongue.
What is alt-text?
Imagine if you were given a photo album. Every page inside was blank. Instead of photos, there were squares of paper. And the same word was repeated on every square: Image.
That’s the experience of a person using Assistive technology if you don’t use alt-text.
The alt is short for alternative. The alternative to seeing the image is to have a description of it. ‘Alt text’ is a written description of what appears in an image. It is sometimes called alt tag.
Why alt text or alt tags are important is for people with vision impairment or blindness who are relying on screen readers or other assistive technology. They will have the description read to them and
‘Jenny in sunset wearing a red dress’. ‘Sebastian with his soccer ball in the tree.’
In your mind’s eye, can you see the difference?
How to use alt-text well?
Having said that, we need to be succinct. Like writing fiction, detail adds meaning, but use adjectives wisely. One will do.
Here’s an example.
If I say ‘two people on a beach’, what do you think of?
A hot day? People smiling? People sunburnt an unhappy?
It depends on how much you like or dislike the beach. Everyone would have quite a different image in their mind.
What if I said:
‘two people on a beach bathed in pastel morning light’. Yes, I used two adjectives, but they add meaning.
Now what comes to mind?
The poetry is in the accuracy.
You get the picture?
Well-being? Happiness? Opportunity?
We can’t describe things that aren’t in the picture. Well-being is an abstract concept we can’t depict, but we can infer it with our word choice. ‘Gentle light’ would have worked too.
It pays to be mindful of the person on the Assistive device who is going to hear your old text but not see your picture. They are your audience as well this is your opportunity to move them and to communicate with them using words. You can use their visual function to convey feelings, and bring a smile to their lips.
Table, charts, graphs
It’s not just pictures that should have alt-text. It is also tables and graphs and Charts. Here, you wat to exercise grace and economy.
If you have a lot of information to convey in a complex graph, put that information into text, not alt-text. Make it part of the body copy.
Decoration or design elements can be tagged as decorative, so the person on the screen reader doesn’t feel like they are missing out. All your software. like Word, Docs, Powerpoint, WordPress, Adobe, and InDesign will allow you to do this.
Good design is inclusive. Good on you for making it better.