Section 508 Compliance: The right and wrong way to write ALT text for photos

Imagine this: You are blind. You cannot see. Perhaps you are color-blind. You rely on a screen reader (assistive technology device or ATD) to translate into your ear what has been written on a web page. Then, you stumble upon a picture embedded in the web page so the ATD speaks into your ear the ALT TEXT (alternative text) that was embedded in the photo.

Now, if you can see with your eyes, take a look at the photo below and describe the image:

Picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger at the age of about 70 years old with scraggly gray beard, aged skin, receding hairlkne, slight smile, direct eye contact, gray t-shirt, blue blazer
By Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80653226

What do you see? The ALT TEXT is supposed to describe to a person with visual disabilities, particularly somebody who is blind or colorblind, the contents of the image. Because, after all, a picture says 1,000 words. So, if somebody can’t see the picture, then they are missing out on quite a bit of content.

Again, I ask you, what do you see when you look at this picture?

I stumbled upon this photo when I Googled the phrase, “good republicans“. The funny thing, depending on your political compass is that the first thing that showed up on Google’s search results was a “List of Republicans who opposed the 2016 Donald Trump presidential campaign.

Anyway, on this page, there was a photo and a link to Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. I clicked through to that page and the photo of Aaaaaaaarnold was a somewhat casual photo of him in his 70s with a scraggly gray beard, silver chain necklace, gray T-shirt, and blue blazer with a slight smile, receding hairline, and aged skin looking directly into the camera.

But, how does the ALT TEXT describe this photo? It simply says, “A bearded man wearing a blue jacket over a grey t-shirt.”

First of all, if somebody is blind and relies on a screen reader to translate text, they probably don’t know and can’t comprehend the meaning of colors, specifically blue and gray. In addition, they misspelled the color gray. Arnold is an American living in California. In the US, gray is spelled G-R-A-Y.

More importantly, this is not just any man in a fricking blue jacket and gray T-shirt. This is Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator. Conan the Barbarian. Conan the Destroyer. Former Governor of California.

The guy who could have run for President of the United States, and won, had it not been for Article II, section 1, clause 5 of the constitution: “No Person except a natural born Citizen … shall be eligible to the Office of President

This is not just some random bearded man wearing a blue jacket over a grey t-shirt. The photo has lost its entire meaning through a poor translation of the photo into an ALT TEXT.

Bottom line is that your ALT TEXT needs to be relevant and meaningful. It can’t just be a literal translation of a witness to a photo. So, put some thought into your ALT TEXT if you really want your content to be meaningful to you web visitors, especially those with disabilities.


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