Eyebeam “enables people to think creatively and critically about technology's effect on society, with the mission of revealing new paths toward a more just future for all.” The Disability Visibility Project “is an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture.”
We’re excited for you to join us in exploring alt-text and hopefully in the process work towards making online communities more accessible, fun, and welcoming.
We also recorded this section, if you want to listen:
First off, some context. We, ❁ Shannon and ❀ Bojana, are both disabled artists and activists. We met in New York through mutual friends around the time Shannon was first thinking about alt-text. We realized there was a lot of overlap between our interests and decided to jump into this collaborative project.
What is alt-text?
Alt-text is a written description of an image posted online. Alt-text can also be added to images embedded in digital documents (PDFs, Word documents, Google docs, presentations, etc).
Alt-text has multiple uses, but we are focused on its role as an essential part of web accessibility.
Alt-text allows visual content to be accessible to people who are blind, low vision, or have certain cognitive disabilities.
Blind people typically use software called a screen reader to access digital displays. The screen reader goes through the text on the screen and outputs it to a synthetic voice or refreshable braille display. On a website, a screen reader might readout options in the navigation bar, followed by the title, the first paragraph, the second paragraph, etc. When a screen reader encounters an image, it’s unable to “read” it. So instead, it looks for the alt-text — a description of the image embedded in the code — and reads it out. This is how alt-text functions as a non-visual alternative to an image.
Here is an example of an image with alt-text:
You can’t see alt-text here because only readable by screen readers or viewable in the source code of this website. But if you, for instance, install this bookmarklet (Chrome, Firefox), and mouse over the image, the alt-text displays visually on the screen. It may look something like this. You can also check out the alt-text by turning on your screen reader (many devices have built-in screen reading software) or by using the "Inspect Element" browser tool.
What we think about alt-text
Alt-text has existed since the 1990s, but it is often overlooked altogether or understood solely through the lens of compliance. The resulting alt-text is often written in a reluctant, perfunctory style, but it has tremendous expressive potential.
This project reframes alt-text as a type of poetry and provides opportunities to talk about it and practice writing it. We don’t just want alt-text users to be able to access visual content on the internet, we want them to feel a sense of belonging in digital spaces.
Both of us are interested in how communities can move towards better and more nuanced approaches to access. Instead of focusing on compliance and doing the minimum, what if we approach access creatively and generously, centering disability culture? How do we make spaces and experiences that disabled people not only can access but want to access?
Why think of alt-text as poetry?
Framing alt-text as a type of poetry allows us to approach it with some of the ideas and strategies that have been developed by poets.
That said, we’re not interested in producing alt-text poetry that exists outside of making the internet more accessible. We recognize that others have used alt-text and code as inspiration and media for poetry, but for us, increasing website accessibility remains the first and most important condition of alt-text’s poetic potential.
Here are three ideas from the world of poetry that we have found to be particularly helpful when writing alt-text:
1. Attention to Language
Simply by writing alt-text with thought and care, we shift the process. What words are we using? What are their connotations? What is the tone of our writing (the way in which we’re doing the writing)? What is the voice (who the reader hears)? How do these align with, or contrast, the tone and perspective of the image?
2. Word Economy
People who are new to description have a tendency to over-describe images. While there are times for long and lavish descriptions, alt-text usually aims for brevity. For most images, one to two sentences will do. Poetry has a lot to teach us about paring down language to create something that is expressive, yet concise.
3. Experimental Spirit
We have so much to learn from poetry about being more playful and exploratory in how we write alt-text. We are not interested in experimentation for experimentation’s sake — we want a kind of experimentation that moves towards better and more nuanced accessibility for alt-text users. There are lots of complex and interesting questions that come up when translating visual information into text. We need to try out different ways of doing this, learning from each other's strategies and techniques.
Our intent with this project
The purpose of this project is not to tell you how to write alt-text. There are many existing resources that provide guidelines and how-tos (you can find a few listed in the Tools section).
Our primary intent is to put alt-text on your radar (if it wasn’t already), to get you thinking about it creatively, and to explore a few of the key questions that come up when translating images into text.
We hope what you read and experience here makes clear that, like all accessibility practices, writing alt-text requires ongoing practice, learning, and collaboration.
We also want to note that our thinking about alt-text is shifting and changing all the time. And of course, people have lots of different opinions about how to approach alt-text. So take all of this with a grain of salt, seek out alternate viewpoints, and feel free to disagree.
Who we are
About Bojana Coklyat
I am a visual artist, activist, and scholar. I focused my MA studies on the intersection of Disability Studies and Art Administration. This included an internship at the Whitney Museum of Art in its Access and Community program and participation in the 2018 Kennedy Center International conference on Leadership Exchange in the Arts and Disability. In 2019, I curated Crip Imponderabilia a groundbreaking show for the NYU Gallatin Gallery. I’m also currently on the NYU Advisory Committee for the Kimmel Gallery and have done consulting work for The Whitney, NYU Gallatin Galleries, and the New York Jewish Museum. I have also worked as an artist and grassroots access organizer in the Jersey City community for decades, curating events and exhibits featuring disabled artists. In 2020, I am completing a 2019-2020 Fulbright Research Grant in the Czech Republic, focusing my research on access in the arts for disabled people.
I’m a smiley white woman with a chin-length brunette bob. I’m about 5-feet 6-inches, easing into my 40s and usually have my white cane with me when outside. Tonight, I’m wearing a typical outfit of late, a graphic black and white t-shirt, cherry red cardigan and black jeans.
I’m a multidisciplinary artist making work about disability culture and accessibility. I’ve done projects with The Banff Centre, Tallinn Art Hall, The Invisible Dog, Friends of the High Line, and the Wassaic Project. I’ve spoken at the Brooklyn Museum, School for Poetic Computation, The 8th Floor, Data & Society, and The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library. In 2018, I received a Wynn Newhouse Award and participated in Art Beyond Sight’s Art + Disability Residency. In 2019, I was a resident at Eyebeam.
I’m a 5-foot-2-inch, blond, white person. I’m a fairly small person and I’m in my early 30s, though people often tell me I look younger. My disability affects my walking so I move with a slight wobble. I’m currently writing from home where I’m wearing a blue, gingham PJ-set.
Written introduction about alt-text and alt-text as poetry.
A series of writing exercises.
We encourage you to engage with the workbook with a friend or colleague. You can do it on your own, but we’ve found participants learn a lot from reading someone else’s alt-text and having a chance to discuss the process.
We estimate the full workbook takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours. Feel free to break up the time, skip sections, or re-order things however you like.
The workbook is free and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
If this workbook is a helpful resource to you, consider supporting this project:
for personal use or grassroots organizing ... $ 0-10
for work at a non-profit or educational institution ... $10-30
Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice is an accessibility guide geared toward small-scale arts nonprofits and the potentially expansive publics these organizations serve. It details specific ways in which disabled people are excluded from cultural spaces and offers possible solutions to those barriers. Moving away from historical and juridical definitions of accessibility, this guide considers the unique capacity of small scale arts organizations to meet the needs of disabled communities. It engages principles of disability justice to think through what can urgently be done to create more equitable and accessible arts spaces.
Most devices have a built-in screen reader that you can turn on to check out alt-text as you move around the web. It takes some time to learn how to use a screen reader, so another option is these browser extensions that visually surface the alt-text. It’s an easy way to read other people’s descriptions and get a sense of how few images are described at all.
This project is part of an elaborate and rich ecosystem of work around this topic. None of these ideas are new — disabled people have been asking for and producing thoughtful and creative approaches to alt-text and description for a long time. This work is only possible because of the decades of thinking, writing, dreaming, and organizing disabled people have done to shape how we understand access in general. It exists alongside the important work about description that’s being done by many other artists and thinkers.
These are a few on our radar, but certainly, there are many more.
Amalle is a researcher. Amalle quoted in Art Papers: "That gain [from creating access] is a thickness that people inevitably fall in love with, because they become involved with the means of getting around, or communicating, and the poetry or choreography of that means. That thickness slows them down." They discussed similar themes in a talk at Artists Space.
Rebirth Garments are gender non-conforming wearables and accessories for people on the full spectrum of gender, size and ability. This video takes on description through music and is the most fun/exciting thing!
This website, made for and with ❁ Shannon and ❀ Bojana, has been a collaboration between us—we are designers & programmers Laurel Schwulst and Taichi Aritomo.
As you know, alt-text describes images. But a website (since it has a visual form) can also be considered a type of image. So here is our visual description of the site:
This website has a dark blue background and presents its title, “Alt-Text as Poetry” large and centered at the top. Below the title appear brightly colored navigation buttons (with each section differentiated through a special color). Underneath the buttons, a welcome message cheerfully announces itself with an arc of white flower icons. Throughout the entire site, even more flower icons are sprinkled about… and some other decorative motifs like floral drop caps and unique pixelated borders appear per section in their respective bright colors. All of the text on the site is presented in the highly-legible and widely-available Times New Roman serif font.
As the website’s creators, we wanted to provide some context. Below you’ll find some of our writing—why the website looks the way it does, our process of making the website, and some other technical and philosophical details. Overall, we aimed to make this website inviting, accessible, joyful, and economical. We hope you like it!
✺❋Laurel & Taichi
Website launched: June 2020
Our relationship to alt-text
We, Taichi & Laurel, come to this project as primarily visual designers and programmers.
We first seriously became interested in alt-text through our work on Artists Space’s website, which exposes the alt-text of each image to all viewers. If you're curious, you can read more about our work on Artists Space here.
It was through our research for Artists Space that we found Shannon and Bojana’s work on this project and started a dialogue together through e-mail.
Why this website looks the way it does
We were interested in exploring the relationship between accessibility and authorship through this site’s design.
Often, accessibility projects are treated in a cold, perfunctory way. But through this website's use of bright colors, floral motifs, and a personal tone—we hoped to invite readers to embrace personal subjectivity as a tool to best translate media to accessible formats.
We also wanted to be honest about this specific project’s context and authors—it’s made by two individual artists, not an organization, so we wanted it to be economically and joyfully made.
We were interested in the flower motif because of its inviting nature. Flower motifs often appear on event invitations—like to parties, weddings, etc. And scientifically speaking, literal flowers are invitations to insects—flowers are brightly colored and sometimes scented so that insects are drawn to pollinate them. (Also coincidentally, Taichi was wearing a bucket hat with embroidered flowers during some of our first brainstorming sessions.)
We liked this quote from Buddhist monk and poet Thích Nhất Hạnh:
A flower is not a flower. It is made only of non-flower elements: sunshine, clouds, time, space, earth, minerals, gardeners, and so on. A true flower contains the whole universe. If we return any one of these non-flower elements to its source, there will be no flower.
A flower can (and should!) be understood through its multiple layers, levels, or processes. Understanding these contributes to our appreciation of the flower beyond its aesthetic appeal.
Maybe sighted people (who translate images into words in order to create alt-text) could consider alt-text this way too. Similar to how the relational
view of a flower only deepens one’s appreciation of the flower’s aesthetic beauty, writing (or reading) the alt-text for an image only adds to our understanding of the image, making it richer and deeper. If sighted writers of alt-text approached their role with such curiosity, the resulting alt-text could better support different modes of understanding and learning.
Web accessibility on this site
On this site, web accessibility was our top priority.
While the topic of alt-text is specific to people who can’t see or understand images, on this site we took a holistic approach to web accessibility so that as many different types of people in many different contexts could use our site. (For more information, here is a good overview of web accessibility.)
In addition to optimizing our site for a screen reader so that people with visual disabilities can read the site, we also checked for keyboard navigation for those with mobility disabilities and color contrast for low-vision or colorblind people. Our site is also “static,”which means that the site exists on the server as a basic HTML file that is sent to your browser. No complicated, programmatic server processes occur when someone visits the site, so it loads very quickly.
More on the technical side: This website was mostly written by hand in HTML. Wherever we could, we tried to use semantic HTML elements, which allow information to describe their own structure and purpose in a human- and machine-readable way. Some examples are <header> and <section>, or, for the collapsible sections, <summary> and <detail>. As universal web standards for different web browsers and devices, these elements enable accessible interactivity and provide explicit information hierarchy in the absence of visual indicators.
Because the website mostly consists of text, we were able to fit all of its contents (save for the extended blog) on a single page. This, we believe, also offers benefits for accessibility. Screenreader users often skim through a page’s contents using the different header levels provided by semantic HTML. On a single-page website, the entire website’s contents are skimmable from one menu, whereas a multi-page website requires screenreader users to search and piece together that structure by visiting multiple pages. Additionally, on a multi-page website, a screenreader would repetitively read the header and navigational elements of each visited page, whereas those elements would only need to be read once on a single-page website.
From a visual standpoint, we made our text clear and legible. In terms of colors, we chose dark blue because of its associated with accessibility. We liked having the blue as background and white as text because it’s easier on the eyes and also uses less of the computer’s energy. (Presenting white on a screen takes the most energy.) And even though we also used colors other than blue, like in the multicolor navigation and sections, we made sure the contrast between text and background was high enough using WebAIM’s Contrast Checker. We also used WebAIM’s WAVE tool for a more general accessibility test.
Thanks also to Cortney Glonka, who tested the site for accessibility.
How we made this site
This website was begun in February and launched later in June 2020.
We began with an initial brainstorm meeting between us, Shannon, and Companion Platform (Lexi Visco and Calvin Rocchio), the designers who created the printed workbook for this project.
From there, we assembled some strategic goals and possible design motifs and presented them to Shannon. With Shannon and Bojana’s feedback, the design of this website emerged.
Besides the background, the website’s colors were selected from the 147 named CSS colors. Specifically, we used yellow, yellowgreen, tomato, cyan, silver, fuchsia, peru, and pink. The deep blue background we chose for its expansive quality. At night, sometimes it appears more purple. We like to call it abundantblue.
The custom pixelated borders were created using Max Bittker’s “broider” tool. (And special thanks to Max for adding custom broider colors for us!)
Who we are
About Taichi Aritomo
I'm a designer, programmer, gardener, and math tutor. I like to think about the ways that beings and things plan and improvise together. Sometimes, I work with ✺ Laurel, making websites like this one or helping her with classes. Last year (2019), I was also a volunteer at the Adaptive Design Association, an organization that makes bespoke, low-cost adaptations for people with disabilities. And this year (2020), I'll begin pursuing a masters degree in architecture and landscape architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design.
I'm a Japanese-American in my mid-twenties. I have a skinny frame, and I’m 5 feet and 10 inches tall. My black hair is cut with a few bangs over my forehead, and the rest of it is held back with a cheap plastic band, curling slightly at the ends below my ears. People tell me I have big eyes, but I slept so much this weekend that one of my eyelids didn’t fold right this morning. I'm wearing navy blue sweatshorts made of heavyweight terry cotton and a navy blue t-shirt that I found in my grandparents' closet. I'm at home, sitting at my desk on a yellow plastic chair from Hay. Through my window I can smell fresh-cut grass and hear people talking outside.
I’m an artist, designer, writer, programmer, and teacher interested in ambiance and the internet. Some of my favorite projects I’ve worked on include: Flight Simulator, an “ode to airplane mode” — a novel travel app for iOS and Android; Perfume Area, a book of poetic, lyrical perfume reviews; Artists Space’s website, which through multiple entrances allows generous traversal through its rich archive and also features exposed alt-text (created with ❋ Taichi and others); and most recently Fruitful School, a website workshop for people with idea seeds whose soil is equally code and culture. I’ve also taught design courses at Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, and California College of the Arts and was previously creative director of Kickstarter’s The Creative Independent and designer and front-end developer at Linked by Air.
I’m a 5-foot-4-inch slightly wavy brown-haired white person with hazel eyes. I’m in my early 30s, and typically people think I look younger, and sometimes I’m mistaken for a student and other times people tell me I have a nice smile. I’m currently writing from my kitchen table at home, where it’s early afternoon and I’m wearing a bright yellow t-shirt, gray sweatpants, and my favorite Mont-Bell “sock-on” house sandals. I’m listening to dreamy club music from the early 2000s and the sun is shining behind rainclouds through my window.