Earlier today, Instagram announced an update that would automatically add alt text and image descriptions to images in the feed, explore, and profile sections of the app so vision impaired users can get information about what is in a picture. Users can also add their own alt text or image descriptions to posts so that they can ensure their vision impaired followers are not left out of the fun. However, with this new update, it's important that users know not only what alt text and image descriptions are, but how to write alt text and image descriptions for Instagram posts. Today, I will be sharing a brief tutorial on how to make Instagram posts accessible for screen readers using alt text and image descriptions. The first part of this post defines common assistive technology terms for those not familiar with them, the second part of the post covers tips for writing alt text and image descriptions for Instagram, and the third part of the post shares how to add alt text and image descriptions to Instagram posts.
What is alt text?
Alt text tells people what is in an image, such as text or basic essential details. If an image fails to load, alt text will display in its place. Search engines also index alt text information and consider it a factor when determining search engine ratings. This is a very short description, usually only 1-2 sentences. For a photo based app like Instagram, alt text can be written with more detail compared to alt text that is written for an image on a blog. It is strongly recommended that alt text be 125 characters or less to ensure compatibility for popular screen readers.
What is an image description?
An image description gives more details than alt text and allows someone to learn more about what is in an image that goes beyond alt text. Alt text gives the user the most important information while image descriptions provide further detail. For example, alt text tells someone that there’s a puddle on the floor, and image description tells someone that the puddle on the floor is in the middle of the floor and it’s orange juice. Users may choose to add detailed descriptions as the default alt text, or may add descriptions to the end of a caption so people can get more details if they want. Image descriptions can be longer than traditional alt text, but I recommend keeping them the length of a tweet, or about 280 characters.
What is a screen reader?
A screen reader, sometimes referred to as text-to-speech, is a form of assistive technology that allows people with vision impairments such as blindness and low vision to read digital information. Screen readers are built in to almost every smartphone currently on the market so that users can read text messages, make phone calls, interact with apps, and much more. When it comes to mobile users, a majority of blind and low vision users use VoiceOver on their iOS devices- read more about VoiceOver here.
What can screen readers read?
Screen readers can read almost anything that is displayed on a screen. Examples include:
- Text (in any form)- read more about texting with vision impairment here
- Pictures and graphs with alt text
- Emoji- read more about Emoji here
- Keyboards- read more about keyboards and vision impairment here
What can screen readers not read?
As you can tell, screen readers can do a lot of things, but it can't do everything. Here are some examples of what they can't read:
- Videos (though audio description does exist- read more about audio description here)
- Pictures or graphs without alt text or image descriptions
- Certain apps that are image-based
- Text in a photo without alt text
Screen readers need a little bit of help in order to be able to read information, so this is where users come in and write out their own alt text and image descriptions so that the screen reader has something to read. Next, we're gonna learn how to write alt text for your Instagram posts so that screen reader users can know what's going on.
How to write alt text for your Instagram posts
Explain what's in the photo
Imagine someone is sitting next to you as you scroll through Instagram, and they point at a photo and ask what it is. Chances are, you'll give them a one or two sentence description that is perfect for writing as alt text. Here's an example:
"Hey Veronica, who's that in the photo with you?"
"Oh, that's a fluffy gray dog sitting in my lap. We're sitting on the ground at a therapy dog event."
Write out any important text
Is there a sign in the photo, or is it a screenshot of an article? Write out any important text that is in the photo that someone would notice or want to read. If there's a billboard in the background of your group photo that a sighted person wouldn't notice, then you don't have to mention it, but if everyone is gathered around the billboard to take a photo, then write out what the billboard says and what it looks like.
Can I mention colors in my description?
Don't be afraid to share what colors are in a photo, if color is important. However, don't get caught up trying to explain what color is to someone who can't see it. A photo can be described as being in black-and-white, having warm or cool colors, or being tinted a certain color. Someone wearing clothes that are the main focus of the photo can write that they are wearing a black and white lace dress with yellow earrings.
Identifying who is in the picture
For personal Instagram accounts, I would write out names of people who are in the picture for the first part of the description, then describe the setting of the photo. For example, if I took a selfie with friends, I would write "Veronica and Lakota smiling at the camera while standing on the streets of Washington, DC."
For business Instagram accounts that use models or where description matters, I would write out a simple description that includes information such as skin tone, gender, hair color/style, what they are wearing, and any other interesting features or expressions. For example, I might write a description of my friend as "a white female with shoulder length blonde hair wearing a black dress and silver earrings. She is smiling and her blue eyes are looking at something behind the camera."
Know your audience
Instagram accounts for topics such as fashion, photography, and interior design are going to have more detailed descriptions than someone's personal account that is followed by a handful of family and friends. Even if it doesn't seem like you'd have any followers with vision impairment, you never know who may develop issues with their eyesight or if someone may be hiding a condition from you, since not all vision impairments are easily noticeable. It only takes about thirty seconds to write out a description, so why not take the time to do so?
Adding alt text and image descriptions
Should I use automatic alt text?
While automatic alt text is awesome, it isn’t always the most accurate. For example, automatic alt text once interpreted a picture of my brother standing outside as being a picture of a car. It never hurts to double check automatic alt text and make sure that both the computer and humans are in agreement as to what is in the picture. As a vision impaired user, I am much more likely to pay attention to alt text or image descriptions that someone wrote out instead of just some auto-generated sentence that may or may not be accurate.
Adding alt text to a new post
Right before you publish a new Instagram post, there is an option under "advanced settings" to compose an alt text description. You can type out your alt text here, or copy and paste it from another app.
Adding image descriptions to a new post
If you want to add a longer image description, add an open bracket at the end of your caption, add the phrase "image description:" and then type out/copy and paste whatever you want to add. Make sure to add a closed bracket at the end!
Adding alt text to an existing post
To add alt text to an existing post, click on the three vertical dots at the top of the post, click "edit", and then tap the "alt text" option that is directly on top of the photo, next to the "tag people" option. From there, you can add your own alt text and it will be saved to the photo.
Adding image descriptions to an existing post
To add a longer image description to an existing post, click on the three vertical dots at the top of the post, click "edit", and then edit the caption following the same guidelines from the section "Adding Image Descriptions to a New Post." Make sure to click the check mark afterwards to save your work.
I'm so excited that Instagram is taking steps to be more accessible for people with vision impairment. Over 250 million people worldwide have some form of vision loss, and this number is expected to continue to grow with the senior population. By knowing how to write alt text and image descriptions for Instagram posts, people and businesses can ensure that those who have vision impairments aren't excluded from enjoying what they have to share.