• Hunter Hall

Students and teachers make content more accessible with alt text

(For William & Mary's Studio for Teaching and Learning Innovation)

When first encountering alternative text, or alt text, in an online class, University of Virginia student Mausam Mehta was unsure what to make of it. Mehta uses a screen reader, a tool available to people who are blind or visually impaired, to read on-screen text that she encounters, but interpreting images and diagrams is still difficult when there is no text available. This is where alt text comes in—as Mehta’s screen reader interpreted the force chart in her physics homework, it began to tell her which direction the arrows in the diagram were pointing.

“It was cool because you visually cannot detect it, it’s something that’s embedded and only the screen readers will catch it.” said Mehta.

Similar alt text functionality is available to educators on blackboard when they upload images on the site. This allows people using screen readers to access information in the image, and provides a description that is useful when a user has poor connection or wishes to search for an image.

As for what to include in an alternative description, William & Mary student Jake Beardsley suggests considering what effect you want to evoke with the caption.

Below Beardsley's initial caption of "Actual footage of me ordering postmates because I'm too awkward to hit the dining halls today," they use an alt text caption of "Image: a dog lies under a blanket with only her snout sticking out. A hand enters the frame to hand her a piece of popcorn, which she greedily devours without ever leaving the blanket."
Beardsley uses alt text on their facebook post

“Is it awe? Is it political consciousness? Is it humor? Figure out how to replicate that in text, and don’t be caught up in getting every single little detail in there, because that’s probably going to hurt more than it helps.” Beardsley said. Beardsley is active in multiple facebook groups centered around life at William &

Mary, and when they post a an image in one of these groups, they make sure to provide alt text.

Alt text has other benefits—in addition to accessibility for people using screen readers, writing an alternative caption benefits the person posting the image as well.

“It’s just convenient for certain things—it makes it much easier to search posts.” Beardsley said.

Beardsley says writing alt text also makes them more conscious of what they are putting on social media.

“It helps me to be a lot more thoughtful in general about what I post.”

According to Mehta, there is no “best” way to write an alt text caption, and instead it depends on personal style.

“At a certain point, you have to have enough [text] that you can get more of an idea than you would by not having any at all.” she said.

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