Photo Accessibility: Authors and Alt-Text


How many of my readers knew about the custom alt-text feature in Instagram?

I’m willing to bet that very few know this feature exists. Unless you are using a screen reader, it may not be something you even think about.

However, providing alt-text is crucial for users who rely on screen readers to know what’s in an image, and helps make social media and websites more accessible to all users.

Why am I, an author, talking about alt-text and photos? Well, for one, I use Instagram and Facebook frequently. These sites are two of the most popular social media sites in operation today, in addition to Twitter, and the number of images shared on a daily basis across these sites is staggering.

I’m also a digital media manager in my day job. It’s my job to advise clients on the best ways to use social media to promote a product, service, or message. So I have some experience seeing firsthand the power of social media to get a point across.

If you’re doing your own social media, it can be a lot to think about. I know that my own marketing for my books has not been as on par as I would like it to be. But it can get better, with some patience, some practice, and good strategy.

I urge all content creators to think about how accessible your content really is. Are the only people who can interact with your content those who are seeing and hearing? Would someone with low vision struggle to read the text on your website? Would someone who is colorblind have difficulty picking out colored text or seeing a difference in an image? Could someone who is hearing impaired or deaf understand with ease what’s happening in the video you posted?

Accessibility helps us all. I know that when I’m watching a show or a movie, I’ll frequently turn on the captions and read while I’m listening. I do not have a hearing impairment. But often it helps me to comprehend better what the characters are saying on screen.

What I typically advise my clients to do, and what I have started doing myself, is add alt-text to images and captions to videos. Twitter may be the more difficult network to do this for, simply because of the character limit. Instagram and Facebook both offer an alt-text option for images you upload.

On Facebook

If you’ve already uploaded a photo and want to change the alt-text, you can do so very easily. Go to the photo and click on it. [Note: these instructions assume you are on a desktop or laptop rather than a mobile device.] At the bottom is an Options menu. Click on Options and you should see a Change Alt Text option. Click on that, click on Override generated alt text, and fill in your new alt-text. Click Save, and you’re done.

Screenshot showing a portion of a Facebook image with the Options menu selected; red arrow points to Change Alt Text.

On Instagram

Again, if you’ve already uploaded a photo and want to add or change the alt-text on it, you can do so. [Note: These instructions assume you are on a mobile device.]

Navigate to the photo you want to change. Select the three vertical dots in the upper right corner of the post and tap Edit. Along the bottom right of the image, you should see an option called Edit Alt Text. Tap that and the area to change or add alt-text is shown. Enter your text and tap the blue arrow on the top right to save. You’re done!

Screenshot of an Instagram post with the Edit Alt Text menu displayed on the bottom right.

Using an Image Description

I may also include an image description in the post’s description. This is in addition to the alt-text. It may be overkill – I really am unsure if it’s needed for a screen reader if alt-text is already present. But I feel that it adds an additional assist to users who may be struggling to read a difficult font or harsh colors but who may not normally use a screen reader. You can find examples of how I choose to format this on my Instagram, but here is a screenshot and example below:

[description text example]
Look what just arrived for me!
[Image: the paperback book Fractured Bonds sitting on top of a cardboard box.]
#books #fantasy #amwriting

Screenshot of an Instagram post from booksbykira showing the post image and description

Using Post Schedulers

A lot of folks use an auto-scheduler or scheduling service such as Hootsuite to make it easier to schedule their social media posts. These are extremely useful – however, I don’t know of a way to add alt-text to an image as described above when using one of these services. If anyone else out there has experience using Hootsuite or a similar service and has been able to add alt-text to an image when scheduling, please let me know! I would love to add this feature before the post is published rather than having to go in and edit after the fact.

To Wrap Up…

Might this take a little longer than just posting something out there? Yes. Would it add value to your users and help those who rely on accessible content to actually interact with you? Absolutely.

As more and more people use the Internet, digital accessibility is going to become more crucial than ever. Website accessibility is already a key segment of what website builders and programmers are studying, but accessibility and social media is tragically underrepresented. I can say without any hesitation that I have never once been in a discussion about social media and had accessibility come up as a requirement. What little I do know about digital and social media accessibility, I have researched and learned on my own.

Next time you sit down to work on your online presence, spend some time looking up best practices for digital accessibility in your field. I strongly encourage everyone who creates content to really examine how you can make your content and your voice more accessible to all users–because in the end, an accessible world is one which helps all users.

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