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.
Alt text and image descriptions are text-based descriptions of visual details in an image written primarily for people who are visually impaired (inclusive of blind/low vision). Image descriptions are similar to alt text descriptions that are used by screen readers to recognize images, though there are a few key differences between alt text and image descriptions:
I recommend including both alt text and image descriptions when making digital comics accessible so that everyone can read descriptions of images, not just screen reader users- especially since many users with low vision do not use screen readers when browsing social media, but still might need assistive technology for reading images such as a screen magnifier.
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. The most popular screen readers for mobile devices are VoiceOver for iOS and TalkBack for Android.
Some users do not use screen readers full-time and instead use “on demand” screen readers that are activated by a gesture, shortcut, or by pressing a button on their phone. These tools may be referred to as select-to-speak, read aloud, speak text, or similar and are only used to read text or alt text, not navigational buttons or interfaces.
Braille users have the option of having their screen reader display alt text, image descriptions, and other text-based content via a refreshable display.
Screen readers can read almost anything that is displayed on a screen. Examples include:
Screen readers will not recognize the following information:
Without alt text or image descriptions, screen readers will not “see” images or other visual content and will skip over the image and not say anything, meaning the user has no idea this content exists.
Here’s an easy way to figure out what alt text to write for your next Instagram post. 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 Nikita the keeshond sitting in my lap. We’re sitting on the ground at a therapy dog event.”
Ta-da! You now have written an alt text description for the best thing to happen to me that week.
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. For example:
”Veronica and her brother standing in front of a comic book style sign that says ‘Greetings from Everett, Washington’,”
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 something like this:
“Veronica is wearing a black and white lace dress with bright yellow earrings while she holds a plaque”
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 this:
“Veronica and Shelby smiling in front of a pink, blue, and mint colored mural in Nashville.”
For business Instagram accounts that use models or where the description of a person really matters, I would write alt text as 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 like this:
“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.”
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 loss, you never know who may develop issues with their eyesight or if someone may be hiding a condition from you, since not all vision loss is easily noticeable. It only takes a minute or two to write out alt text on Instagram, so why not take the time to do so?
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.
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.
If you want to add a longer image description:
If you have a slideshow of images, I recommend numbering each description, i.e “the first image has a cat sleeping, the second image shows the cat awake.” Make sure to add a closed bracket at the end!
To add alt text to an existing post:
To add a longer image description to an existing post
By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com
Updated October 2023; original post published November 2019.
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