After 22 months of using image descriptions, I've noticed some great side-effects:
- I notice things more. When I write an image description, I have to really look at the image multiple times, and most of the time I realize aspects that before I would never have brought to my consciousness. In this way I get to look at it for the first time twice. It's a great mind-sensation. This used to happen for me when I edited photos I took, but now I can have it for any image whether I created it or not.
- I've grown far better skill at describing things. I have to figure out what is important for meaning and feeling, and put that into words. I have come to be much more aware of lighting, textures, and mood.
- I am more intentional in what I share of both my own and others' images. There is a bit more work to sharing things, so I don't just click 'share' on any image I come across that I like. Instead, my feed ends up being weighted toward original content. I value creation deeply and am grateful that that little bit of extra work keeps me from ever getting in the habit of merely re-sharing others' content.
- It has made me more expressive. Rather than popping in an emoticon, I have resurrected the art of emoting: I will type *smiles* or *excited bouncing* and this is oddly far more vulnerable and makes me feel far more connected.
Even if I didn't have great side-effects AND I had no friends who were blind or low-vision, this would still be very important for two reasons. 1) I make public posts, and many people who I am not friends with can observe my shares. 2) To make the web accessible, EVERYONE has to do this. More than 1 out of every 50 people in the US has a visual disability (and that number quadruples when you don't count children under age 16) which makes it likely that some of your friends or at least some of your friends-of-friends have a visual disability. I use image descriptions partly to influence sighted people to start writing them also and stop excluding blind & low-vision people by default.
Len Burns, a blind facebook user, writes:
"As one who strives to fully participate in community, I value what you communicate. Each time I am excluded from your conversations because a photo is undescribed, stings. When the "sting" is multiplied hundreds of times per day, I feel excluded and unvalued. Plain and simply, it hurts like hell... If inclusion matters to you, really matters, describe the next photo you post, the one after that, and before you know, it will become a habit. Choosing not to describe a photo or consider the accessibility of other media you plan to use does not differ from ignoring physical barriers that exclude people from community. Exclusion is exclusion. If inclusion is a core value, please think before you post. Thank you."
This past March the official twitter app gave users the ability to add image descriptions, but you have to enable this in the accessibility settings. This allows users to give descriptions that are just for screenreaders (which otherwise would take up the whole tweet). This is a great first step, but people have to be proactive, and the fact that it is an option rather than a requirement reinforces the idea that access for blind/low-vision people isn't important.
A few weeks after twitter released this, facebook released AAT (Automatic Alternative Text), which is nearly useless, as Tasha Raella explains:
"I am a blind Facebook user, and examples of image descriptions I have received so far include 'Image may contain indoor,' 'image may contain one person smiling,' and 'image may contain hat.' ... Rather than questioning the assumption that providing image descriptions is a burden and that blind people’s access needs are blind people’s problem, Facebook is reinforcing the ableist status quo...I heartily encourage you to begin writing image descriptions, at least in any shared space such as facebook groups or LJ communities. They don't have to be fancy; something like "[image: photo of dog with a bone]" or "[image: cartoon of two kids holding hands]" is just fine. I use more in-depth description when I'm describing art such as my icons. I could also describe my icon for this post as "photo: my face" and while a blind person would not get the feel of the image from that, they would get the information that I am using an image of myself to introduce this post, and that might give a variety of impressions, depending on how they interpret that act. Such a bare-bones description at least gives the most basic info.
As it is currently implemented, Facebook’s automated image description tool promotes independence, rather than interdependence. It sends the message, loud and clear, 'Don’t bother writing a description of your new baby. Our AI has it covered.' In ten or twenty years, that might be the case, but not now. With existing technology, the only way to ensure full and meaningful access to images is to encourage sighted users to describe their photos."
Some resources on writing image descriptions: