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.