A picture tells more than a thousand words?

A  picture tells more than a thousand words, or so goes the saying. It’s easy to take that for granted, as humans are by nature very visual and sight-oriented. “What you see is what you get” and so on. And very much so in the internet too. When I first got in the internet in the 1990s, everything was pretty still, so no videos and no animated gifs that I can remember. And it was easier to customize everything for a way to read easier.

Now everything has videos and animations, and usually just default colors that may or may not work for you. And everything everywhere is pictures. Selfies, pictures of children and cats doing funny things, pictures people post before eating their fancy foods, pictures they post from an exotic location… I get it. It’s nice for sharing, and it’s easier to show a picture than try to describe it, something like that.

And I guess pictures are often relevant, at least those we share for our own reasons.

But there can be a big leap to accessibility. Yes, I know, I’m boring. I can’t switch off the accessibility things, it’s not a 8 to 5 thing, deal with it. Yesterday I listened to a lot of people talk about pictures and how to describe them. What would you put in an alt tag or aria code description of something? What if it’s a pointless image, like those stock photos of white or mildly ethnic looking people smiling maniacally while doing mundane stuff, like in prescription drug ads? What if it’s a logo, a banner, an infographic, a big picture on a textbook..? A picture is usually far from 1000 words in those cases. A video can be worth more, but videos face other problems, like not having a clue of what’s happening on the video from just audio, or for those with hearing issues, no options for reliable captions or subtitles. If you want to make a picture accessible, describe its purpose and what’s it there for. If it’s an infographic, maybe make a separate page with text describing everything there. If it’s a photo, a small description is just fine. “A cute black cat sleeping curled up on a sheepskin in front of a window”, “Tim is smiling and looking at a birthday cake with 4 candles on it, with Jim, Tommy and Bob signing to him”, “Jameson, straight up, on the glass. Happy it’s Friday!” would all be more than perfect.

I hear a lot of picture descriptions, and advice on some of them too. It’s interesting being able to be part of making textbooks in audio, and, well, the guidelines change. Quite often no descriptions are needed, other than the text below the picture (think of analog textbooks. Ebooks often follow the same formula). Quite a few books about university subjects contain just stockphotos, graphics that could be left out as they are already detailed in the text, and many variations of pictures that don’t really add anything, other than the author trying to illustrate some concept. Thinking back in my own school days, some topics had such horrible illustrations they would have certainly needed spicing up, like math and physics. The poor illustrations didn’t help me picture the point of vectors or some twisted forces. Hopefully those are better illustrated these days. But for several weeks, all the textbooks I’ve been listening to, have had no other descriptions of photos than what is in the picture’s accompanying text, and the graphics have been described briefly as a human narrator. “There is a box in the center that says X, and there are four circles around it, each pointing to the box. Clockwise from the top the circles have  A, B, C and D as text” is usually the longest description given, and for that each concept or item needs to have a clear meaning to be in the graphic. A good description is nice, but often there just isn’t much anything to communicate in a picture.

The same applies to other medias. People post silent animated gifs of some movie clip or random person or thing making some facial expressions. Guess what? I can’t figure what the expression is. Try describing it. And people post photos in Facebook all the time, no description added. Guess what? … “picture”, “image”. Gee, thanks. “img123444554322245553433_23343.jpg” is also not very descriptive. You can add all teh image guessing algorithms and those will help a little bit, “a woman with eyes closed”, “there might be a black or brown dog in the photo”. C’mon, just describe it.  YIf you are posting it on purpose, maybe a little description wouldn’t hurt. “Felix, my dog, after a run in the park and a shower. He’s my sunshine”. There we go. You’ve mastered it.

One of the lovely sides of being and around accessibility is that a lot of the issues become intertwined. People learn about issues others are facing. So for instance many Autistic and Deaf people have realized the image accessibility issue, and are happy to describe the pictures when relevant in the net. I would love to do a similar poetic description with sounds. As many with less than perfect sound might wonder what something looks like, or lack the concept of what they’ve never seen, I wonder how those who’ve never heard anything or don’t have access to hearing any more might wonder about sound. More on the sound and tones later, but Mark got me started on the visuals, so it’ll be interesting to ping him on the sounds later.


11 thoughts on “A picture tells more than a thousand words?”

  1. This is great.

    You pointed out a lot of things that I struggled with when it comes to making images accessible because when I look at images, I think of describing them in words that I see in my mind. Where the struggle begins is how those words I see are translated into sound which introduces a mental image based on what you hear.

    Hand in hand, as they say.

    One of the issues I have with alt is the majority point of view that it is good for SEO but SEO is not accessibility. I remember a Twitter chat conversation where one person commented for example “black labrador” and that was all you needed. To me, it did not make any sense because I couldn’t understand how a screen reader “reads” that. Does the screen reader say “image black labrador”?

    If that is all it does, okay.

    Fine, but to describe the image, that’s where it falls short of inclusion for me. Because in the picture, the black labrador is holding a tennis ball in its’ mouth, looking at the camera, standing on boulder, on top of a hill, with a wide angle view of highway where cars and trucks are speeding by.

    Now… what you wrote…

    If you want to make a picture accessible, describe its purpose and what’s it there for. If it’s an infographic, maybe make a separate page with text describing everything there. If it’s a photo, a small description is just fine.

    Okay, that I can live with. Is it a perfect solution? I can’t tell you because I am not blind nor am I hearing. For those who are deaf-blind, I can’t give you an answer either. However, being able to link the image to a page where one can describe it in a thousand words…. is something I can live with because I would enjoy being able to describe a black labrador holding a tennis ball in it’s mouth while standing on a boulder located on top of a hill…. and so on and on.

    Does this all mean there is a one-size-fits-all solution? No but it does tell me that I can create the perfect solution to fit different needs. If it means creating what they call in business, the last mile, by making a description page for the image to link to, so be it.

    Some might say that’s too much work. I don’t think so. I think it means a desire to be 100 percent inclusive. Hmm… you always give me great brain food but what you did share here nailed some questions I struggled to get answers for. Now I have to pull some other pieces of the puzzle together to make this picture worth a thousand words where it counts the most, the final mile.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. funny you think of sound separately.
      i guess most hearing people “hear” their thoughts so sound would be always before visual words or text (if they are typical word/language thinkers).
      i rarely think of sound, except for poetry (and trying to imagine how vivid and magic poetry in sign language has to be).
      for images anywhere, it’s just the story that matters. like that black dog, easy to imagine. and if i post a picture, i’ll always tell the story so less guessing and it’ll when successful make the image secondary.


      1. Well, it’s understandable because I was not born with the audiological condition of hearing so sound for me is something I switch on when I turn my hearing aids on. Therefore, it is separate for me.

        I am a little confused on something regarding how screen readers are reading when they come across an alt text. Here is an example of what I think happens in this case where the alt text is image of a girl walking to the well.

        (Screen reader voice)

        And Hansel walked to the well. Image of a girl walking to the well. When Hansel arrived at the well, she dropped the bucket.

        (End of example one)

        The reason I ask is because I’m a little confused as to what exactly is being read. For a lack of a better explaination, if I understand right screen readers are reading words and codes. Right now, the way I see it in my mind is this.

        (Screen reader voice)

        And Hansel walked to the well. Alt text image of a girl walking to the well. When Hansel arrived at the well, she dropped the bucket.

        (End of example two)

        Can you tell why I am confused because I am seeing this example in terms of words and codes, not just in terms of reading? Example number one does not read out the words, alt text. Example number two does read out the words, alt text.

        Which one is actually happening?


      2. i didn’t know you used hearing aids. neat, as in you have both the silent and a world with some sound then.
        i’m too braindead today to figure your examples difference. the voice will read whatever is in the alt text or aria description. if we use this as an example http://www.imdb.com/list/ls004489992/ vo will read eg “image of dr no”, “image of goldfinger” while it goes over those images.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Okay so it does not actually say alt. Just the text inside the alt. That’s very helpful. As for brain dead, kick and relax, enjoy a movie or book or something. I’ve been there. You deserve it.


  2. I appreciate what you have said in regards to how to describe photos. I still have enough vision to see photos and graphics in books and on the computer, but I try to make sure that my images are accessible to those who can’t see them. I have to admit, sometimes I don’t really know how to describe them and if I’m doing a good enough job! So thank you for your thoughts on that!

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and have nominated you for the Blogger Recognition Award 🙂



    1. ☺️practice makes perfect. for some contexts like educational materials how to describe a photo often makes a bigger difference (how to explain it and how to get the point across). for blogs, facebook, instagram etc? just decribe the main points and the mood. mood can be difficult to get but if you take the photo yourself you know what you saw – for instance a lovely saturday afternoon with a puppy pn lap, listening to movies with spouse while enjoying a glass of red. that is a perfect mood. then paint details, like what your puppy looks like, what kind of wine, what kind of outfit, what you dod esrlier etc

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree with you, Georgia Peach. It can be difficult to figure out how to describe images at times. This post helped me a lot. Anna did a great job framing a few things for me.

      Describing images for social media is a mess at this point right now for me so I have been praticing on my blog because it is one place I do know I can get feedback on my image descriptions. Once I master this skill, I will be able to move on to social media image descriptions.

      That’s pretty cool you nominated Anna by the way. She certainly deserve this nomination.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for this. I try to include image descriptions in my blog posts, but do not do so on Twitter. Mainly because it can take me half an hour to write an image description. My brain seems unable to convert images into words, I get anxious about what to put in and what to leave out, I don’t actually notice details or else notice too many etc. But I console myself with the thought that I’m trying my best.
    I’d rather not put any images at all in my blog posts, but apparently have to for reasons to do with thumbnails or something. I hate GIFs, and cannot follow short videos without captions. Just the way my brain is wired I suppose. And you are right, we are bombarded with images all the time. Give me a thousand words anytime!


    1. Twitter has now a lovely function for adding a description, but it’s hidden by default
      Often a very short description will do, like “a cute puppy and a big mug of coffee”, or even none – as many people post images of the same text they tweeted. i guess those will make it easier to read for some dyslexic or more eye using visual minded people.

      And indeed something awesome – i’ve noticed so many autistic and other disability advocates describe the images they use in their photos well.
      some will insist that the descriptions be in alt img tag in code, or in aria code (again, code… blah). But it shouldn’t matter how it’s there. If you add “image description: Jim is standing smiling next to his black labrador, Bob in front of a library. Jim is wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, Bob wears a guide dog harness.” – that does the same exact thing, so the details will all be t here.

      Liked by 1 person

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