Why you should add alt text to images and how it can save lives

Adding alt text to your work can help you increase your following, record better engagement, and publish media that is accessible to people with disabilities. It can also save lives. Here is how to do it effectively

Published - February 22, 2024 11:42 am IST

A representational image of a silhouetted person using their smartphone to take photos of a bright red and illuminated wall filled with screens. This is an example of alt text.

A representational image of a silhouetted person using their smartphone to take photos of a bright red and illuminated wall filled with screens. This is an example of alt text. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

You are scrolling through a social media feed and see that your friend has shared a poem by a famous writer, their words set against a beautiful photo. You try to read it but the typeface feels microscopic on your screen and the grainy photo further obscures the already tiny words. You decide not to share it with your own followers.

Or picture this: Your city is hit by a cyclone and your local government has uploaded an infographic with emergency helpline numbers on its website. Because of your poor internet coverage, the picture does not load and you have no idea whom to call for food and medicine.

While the first scenario is a minor annoyance and the second is a case of life-and-death, they both illustrate the need for the same solution: Alternative Text.

Called alt text for short, this is nothing but a short description of a digital image that is uploaded online so that the content can be fully understood even if it can’t be seen directly.

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There are numerous reasons to use alt text. It makes images or videos accessible to people with disabilities (such as those who are blind or depend on a screen reader), it helps evade censorship on digital platforms, it increases social media engagement by using or repeating keywords, it allows people with poor internet connectivity to also benefit from the content, it provides a seamless reading experience with fewer finger movements on a touchscreen, and it helps out journalists or writers who want to quickly quote your content without having to transcribe it from a low-quality image.

For example, in the following image from X (formerly Twitter), we see a cropped screenshot of an email with an image description that makes it easier for people to read the text as they naturally would on a phone, instead of having to zoom into the very lengthy screenshot and scroll from right to left. This is an example of alt text done correctly.

A screenshot showing how the image description feature looks on X

A screenshot showing how the image description feature looks on X | Photo Credit: @XiranJayZhao on X

In the following screenshot taken from the official Twitter account of the Embassy of India in Kyiv, Ukraine, an urgent advisory about Russia’s 2022 invasion was posted as an image, without any alt text or image descriptions in the comments. The long document contains important URLs that users would have to manually type out during an emergency, instead of simply copying the text or clicking it.

The post on X:

A screenshot showing how an emergency alert on Twitter was posted as an image without any image descriptions

A screenshot showing how an emergency alert on Twitter was posted as an image without any image descriptions | Photo Credit: @IndiainUkraine on X (formerly Twitter)

When dealing with censorship, such as TikTok videos which are banned in India or news photos/posts that are blocked on social media platforms due to government requests, a separate image description or post can help readers better understand what is being hidden from them.

Unfortunately, adding alt text is not a standard social media practice; the feature is often ignored even by major Indian influencers and companies with a social media presence.

Whether you are an individual or a brand, you can make your content more reader-friendly and help it stand out from the crowd by using alt text or an image description.

How to add alt text to images online
If using a social media platform such as X (formerly Twitter) or Instagram, you will have a dedicated section for adding alt text as soon as you upload an image. This also applies to blogging platforms such as Substack and WordPress.
In case you are working with a platform that does not allow you to add alt text, you can easily add it as part of the caption, or as a separate post or comment underneath the image. Using a separate post/comment lets you add longer image descriptions.
The easiest way to add alt text is to not add it at all. This means you should avoid posting infographics, text placed against images, or Notes app screenshots unless the text can be read/highlighted/copied/etc. If you can present your text the way it is, or through a medium that is not an image, choose that first.
In the case of social media posts, you can embed the post instead of uploading a screenshot. However, a screenshot with alt text is better if you believe the original post may soon be deleted.
If you are sharing lengthy documents, opt for PDF instead of .jpg or .png
Keep your alt text sharp, concise, and visual. If you are sharing a plain screenshot with text on it, the alt text only needs to contain the same text that is featured in the image. Avoid using the alt text box as a place for jokes, hashtags, or commentary, as this is a misuse of the function.
When working with photos or art, describe the colours, textures, scenery, and unique details to help your viewer picture the image. Instead of writing ‘Japanese tree and a cat in a temple during a winter storm,’ try “a faded oil painting of a Japanese cherry blossom tree covered in snow as it stands in a Buddhist temple under looming grey clouds. A fat tabby cat is smiling and sleeping under the tree.”
Adding alt text to videos doesn’t have to be challenging. Describe the scene and the people in it to help users understand the full context. With your alt text, try to set the scene and provide a gist of the content for those who cannot immediately view the video. It helps to imagine yourself describing the scene to a friend when neither one of you can see it on a device.
Avoid bias in your alt text description. Instead of typing “two female Indian doctors angrily complain about gender discrimination,” try “At St. Mary’s Hospital in Mumbai, Dr. Patel speaks with Dr. Khan about gender discrimination in healthcare. Dr. Patel is dressed in a pink salwar kameez as she holds a framed photo of her young daughter, explaining how she wants to be a positive role model for the toddler. Dr. Khan is dressed in a formal black suit and recalls how she is frequently mistaken for a trainee even though she is a chief surgeon.”
Your alt text should be grammatically correct, free of spelling mistakes, and must have proper punctuation in case it is being read aloud by an electronic assistant.
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