Getting the full picture

If you think ramps and elevators are a good idea, why not support image descriptions, too?

6 minute read
How would you describe this image to someone who couldn’t see it? (Photo by Camille Bacon-Smith.)
How would you describe this image to someone who couldn’t see it? (Photo by Camille Bacon-Smith.)

Did you notice an update at Broad Street Review in recent months? We’re describing the images we publish with all new articles, at the bottom of each piece, in addition to captioning them as usual. It’s because we want the BSR community to be accessible to everyone, including blind people who use the internet with the help of screen readers.

A growing group

Visual impairments affect a lot of people in the US and worldwide. Some are, by a clinical definition, legally blind, with little to no vision. But many more people have a wide range of visual impairments that may not amount to blindness but still affect how they move through the world.

In 2010 the World Health Organization estimated that 285 million people of all ages around the globe were visually impaired, and 39 million of those were blind. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) reported a US survey with more than seven million respondents ages 16 and older who had a visual disability in 2016. The same year, according to NFB, there were 298,500 people with a visual disability living in BSR’s home state of Pennsylvania.

Visual disabilities intersect with other identities: according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), white women make up the largest proportion of people affected by blindness and visual impairment, but African Americans currently make up the second highest proportion of these folks, due in part to their disproportionate risk for illnesses like glaucoma. Age matters, too: the WHO estimates that 82 percent of blind people worldwide are age 50 or above. And an NIH study predicts that as Baby Boomers age, the number of people with blindness or visual impairment in the US will more than double by 2050.

Caption or description?

So how does an image description differ from a caption? Captions give you extra information about an image you’re already perceiving: things like where and when the picture was taken, who’s in it, or a fun fact associated with the image. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) defines an image description (and offers good tips and examples): it’s “a detailed explanation of an image that provides textual access to visual content.” Image descriptions tell you, simply and directly, what is in the image when you can’t see it for yourself. (And, as the AAA notes, image descriptions can also be helpful for some sighted people who process images better alongside language.)

“Most photos on Instagram lack descriptions, excluding blind people like myself from conversations and critical information,” writes human-rights lawyer Haben Girma in a recent Instagram post (she’s the author of Haben: the Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law). “The computer programs blind people use to navigate Instagram can read the text in captions, but the programs miss the important details in photos,” she explains. She urges her followers to start 2021 with a commitment to writing image descriptions.

Why exclude?

Even if you’re a sighted person and you think there are no blind or visually disabled people in your circle (unlikely), why would you want to exclude any interested person from your platform by neglecting image descriptions? Building your audience and facilitating broader engagement isn’t a bad thing. Everyone benefits when you make this effort—including you.

And notice what Girma says: not just that blind people should have access to images, but access to “conversations.” Images are an important part of how we communicate, especially in the digital age, from informational graphs on COVID-19 to election memes. There’s no reason to exclude anyone from learning and laughing through images online. And when people like Girma can fully access online media, it’s not only blind people who benefit, but also sighted people who now enjoy dialogue with voices they may not have previously known. BSR is richer for perspectives from Danie “Ocean” Jackson, a blind writer and musician whose essays have probed discrimination in the arts, the power of play, and our notions of heroes, and BSR looks forward to continuing to represent blind artists and writers in our community.

Who’s in the picture?

Writing image descriptions can also make us think more carefully about what images we are curating and displaying, and why. And working on descriptions can raise fruitful questions, especially for those in the media. Who do these photos represent? How do we describe traits like race, gender, age, disability, or size in a way that eliminates stigmatizing or stereotyping assumptions? This habit of thinking benefits everyone.

Last summer, we got a reminder of how important images are to representation (or the lack thereof) when a scandal involving racial bias and alleged sexual harassment engulfed Philly’s PlayPenn. Local theater artist Terrell Green sparked the inquiry when he pointed out that photos accompanying a Metro newspaper story about the upcoming playwriting conference implied that multiple participating playwrights were Black, when in fact only one was.

What went largely unexamined in the resulting commentary at the time was the fact that images don’t appear in media outlets at the sole discretion of the organization being covered: images may be provided, and writers and ultimately editors determine what runs. Arts institutions and media outlets should consider carefully who is represented in published images, and why. These are all questions that stay top of mind when you do the work of describing your photos—reflections that benefit everyone.

And even if you’re not representing an institution or professional media outlet, you can bring these reflections to your own social-media channels or website, and stay aware of who is represented elsewhere. As the PlayPenn scenario proves, large platforms must listen when readers and supporters team up to say something isn’t right.

A welcoming principle

If you think public buildings ought to be open to people using wheelchairs and other mobility aids, with ramps, elevators, and accessible seating and bathrooms, then why not practice the use of image descriptions as well? The principle of welcoming everyone into the space is the same. This is why the current BSR team always notes when a performance or event we cover offers captions, an ASL translator, audio description, sensory-friendly features, and other accommodations. We believe providing this info at a glance should be standard in arts media, and the resulting welcome benefits everyone, enriching the cultural community with artists, audiences, and perspectives that are often excluded.

Because a world where every person using a wheelchair can get into the building, where every deaf person can read a caption or watch a translator, and where every blind person using the Internet can access all the content and conversation, is a world where we don’t have to fear, dread, or stigmatize disability at all. And yes, you guessed it: wouldn’t that be great for everyone?

AN UPDATE: With our new website, launched in July 2021, our image descriptions can now be found in the custom alt text of every photo, available to everyone who uses screen readers.

Image description: A photo taken over the Schuylkill River shows the Philadelphia skyline on the right and the river bending away to the left. The calm, glassy river surface reflects the buildings beside it and the low, gray, cottony clouds overhead.

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