Image Descriptions: A Quick Guide & How-To

What are image descriptions and why are they important? Guest writer Rebecca Marie Stout explains.

By Rebecca Marie Stout, guest writer

Image descriptions are necessary for blind, deafblind, low vision, visually impaired people as well as people with vision processing disorders, ADD / ADHD, other cognitive disorders. Not to mention people who have slow internet connections or limited memory in their devices.

People who use screen readers aren’t able to know what a picture looks like, or what images with text say without image descriptions or alt text; and other people who visually read need image descriptions to see or understand what is going on in images.

Image descriptions describe what an image looks like and / or says. The best (and usually easiest) way to include image descriptions is in the caption. You can write a brief explanation covering the basics or you can write a very detailed description – or something in between. You can also include your own commentary or quips if you so choose.

What to include in image descriptions:

  • Placement of objects
  • Surroundings
  • Colors
  • Image styling (photo, painting, meme, etc)
  • People in pictures – if known include race, gender/agender and names. If not known use gender-neutral pronouns and “presents as (feminine, masculine, androgynous)”. Same for race (“person of color” or “light complexion”). Include hair color or style, glasses, clothing – if important detail – and position of person or people. Also include emotions (smiling, crying, distant, etc)
  • Animals – if you want to get specific add color(s) and breed.
  • Placement of text and emojis

Where to write image descriptions:

Here are some links for further information and examples of writing an image description. There are also Facebook groups that provide community help with writing image descriptions. Join to get help and to help other people out when you can.

Link for more info and examples:

What is Alt Text: https://moz.com/learn/seo/alt-text
I used this to help write my post:
http://www.perkinselearning.org/technology/blog/how-write-alt-text-and-image-descriptions-visually-impaired

A little bit about our guest writer, Rebecca Marie Stout (she/they pronouns): Autistic, blind, living completely from bed, severely chronically ill, and badass truth teller. Check out their Facebook page “Constance Lee N. Payne” to learn more!

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Podcast Transcript: Episode 2 – A Series of Learning Curves

This podcast is available on: iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and Soundcloud

[intro music begins]

Hey there! Welcome to the Blind in Philadelphia Podcast! I’m Japheth Grimm, and I’m really glad you’re checking us out here on our small beginnings. I wanted to start off by thanking everyone who has already subscribed to our podcast, blog, and are following us on Facebook and Twitter.

I also want to thank those of you who have become a Patron on Patreon, as well as bought a shirt from our fundraiser event. Now, we still have shirts available. You can go to our website and social media. Our links will be there.

Quite a few people have also donated funds, equipment, and their time. I can’t thank everyone enough for helping us out in all the ways they have.

[intro music ends]

It’s pretty wild how everything is coming together. For a really long time, my family and friends have really been pushing me to write a book or share my writings on a blog. And I really do enjoy writing. I write all the time. I just get really self-conscious about sharing it.

Something that I have always enjoyed doing is learning from other people, learning about all kinds of stuff, and teaching about things I know really well. I used to do workshops and classes, training and whatnot, for all kinds of things. And now that I am blind and have other disabilities, it’s really hard to not have that exchange in my life anymore.

I’ve been listening to podcasts for a while, and a few of my friends who I met through doing workshops with suggested that I do this all-in-one thing. Combining blogging with accessibility and using both to do this podcast, sharing about my experience as a blind person with all kinds of intersectionality.

So this is something that has been about a year in the making. I’m pretty excited about it. I’m also nervous because I haven’t done something like this before. It’s a pretty big learning curve and umm… I didn’t know quite where to start with this podcast so I figured I might as well start talking about the learning curves that make up who I am as a person.

I haven’t been blind all of my life. It came as a sudden onset, August of 2016. Not wanting to get into the details about that right now, but it’s been a lot. I am glad that I’ve spent a lifetime around disabled people, especially blind and deafblind folks, so I feel like I did have a bit of a heads up.

I was already familiar with some of the technology and was able to brace myself for a lot of the ableism and anti-blindness nonsense that I knew was coming my way. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the emotional trauma, and I’m still working through that, but at least having some base knowledge was really helpful. You know, because people don’t really think about disability until it happens to them or someone they care about.

Really, it’s helpful to already be knowledgeable to some degree. Maybe not necessarily in preparation for becoming disabled at some point. If you’re able to live long enough, you will eventually experience permanent disability. But being knowledgeable about all kinds of disabilities…it does open up your understanding of how the world works and how other people experience things. Motivates people to make things more accessible in this really connecting way.

My favourite aspect of it is just simply being able to communicate with people. I don’t think it makes you a special amazing person if you learn sign language and aren’t deaf or learn Braille but aren’t blind. These form of communication aren’t just limited to deafness and blindness, respectively.

It’s pretty disgustingly ableist and self-serving to go through all that time and effort just so other people give you a pat on the back for it. That’s not the point, or it shouldn’t be anyway. At the end of the day being able to communicate… it’s just vital to being a person who interacts with other people.

So, it’s one thing to have an understanding of these different facets of language and communication, and being able to use them here and there, or even as a part of daily living. But when it’s not something you absolutely need for everyday life, it’s still considered optional. It’s not something that prepares you for being dependant on that kind of communication first-person.

For me, whenever I was sighted, I would use screen readers and voice command and dictation. Kind of telling on myself here, but I would have these ridiculously long commutes whenever I lived in Houston. As much as I loved to drive, I did not love being in traffic all the damn time. In Houston, the public transit system isn’t that great either. It’s terrible.

Otherwise, I would have chosen to use that so I could be productive whenever I was on my way to one place or another. So yeah… I admit, I would use screen readers and dictation to navigate my phone whenever I was driving. My justification was umm… I didn’t have to look at my phone, so there’s that.

But yeah, I would use accessibility software on my phone to answer emails, look stuff up, umm… complete an online defensive driving course… shit like that. I’m not endorsing this behaviour. Bad, bad driving habits. I’m just telling you what I used to do.

Anyway, that’s how I would use blind people accessibility whenever I was sighted. I would also keep up with it a lot because I had a partner who is blind, and a lot of our friends are blind and/or have all kinds of disabilities. I have family members who are blind and one who is deafblind. And, whenever working with the family business we would try to make sure that type of accessibility was available to the people we would hire.

So understanding this accessibility tech has always been normal in my life. But now that I am blind, it’s a completely different thing to have to be dependent on it in the first-person. Obvious statement, right? Now, a lot of people who have become blind later on in life generally don’t have any previous experience with access tech.

So not only are they coping with the loss of their sightedness, it’s a pretty devastating and complex trauma to try to cope emotionally with something so heavy, and on top of that having to crash course learn how to communicate using something they don’t know anything about in the first place. It’s a lot to deal with.

Even with my experience with using things like screen readers and dictation, what was really hard for me to accept was how much I had to suddenly rely on audio cues. And there’s this nonsense about how blind people have heightened senses, or if you become blind all of your senses become heightened…

That’s not true. There’s no superpowers. You just use them more. And having to use other sensories that most people view as secondary as your primary… it’s exhausting. There’s no knob on your ears that somehow pick up more decibels or you suddenly become like Marvel Comics’ Daredevil. That’s not anywhere close to realistic. I have a whole rant about that but I’ll save that for another time.

So, in the past, I was using access technology as a supplement to my sighted world. I always had a visual confirmation of what the access technology was telling me. When I was up here in Philly, or running around in New York, I was able to do all this multitasking whenever I was utilising public transport or just walking down the street. I was able to use my eyes for one purpose, and complete another purpose in an entirely non-visual way by navigating my phone and tablet with my ears and voice.

But when I became blind, it’s not a supplemental thing anymore. Now I’m having to trust it with my life. And that realisation instantly smacking me in the face was really terrifying. For really long time, and I suppose even now to be honest, they’re still this level of bereavement that I’m having to work through because this is a type of reliance that I’m not familiar with.

And on top of that, I had to learn that it’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to be terrified of something. It’s okay to be upset. Because my life as a sighted person has always been “go go go”, I didn’t have something that was so emotionally difficult to process that was present 24/7.

[music break]

I already had a lot of experience with having to cope with things really quickly, and do so on my own. To kind of give you a little bit of background on that, I’m a person of colour who was adopted by the whitest white people. I didn’t have anybody at home to teach me how to cope with racism. I had to figure that out on my own, which was especially difficult because the majority of my adoptive relatives are racist as fuck.

Seriously doubt that they are listening to my podcast or paying attention to me at this point, but if they didn’t want me to say that then they probably shouldn’t have been racist assholes to me all my life. Anyway, so there was that I had to learn how to navigate through coping with racism on my own.

Same thing with my transgender identity. The one person who is a relative and someone that I consider family (because these are two different concepts) who even understood what it meant to be trans was my eldest sister, my very best friend that I’ve ever had. Her name is Heidi. So when I was a teenager, I had someone to help me figure myself out, but ultimately I still had to figure out what being trans meant to me.

I didn’t really have the language for it. Heidi didn’t either. With her being a little over 15 years older than me, being transgender wasn’t anything openly discussed with her generation. She’s not trans, but she did make ways for me to talk with other people who are. Heidi passed away the Summer of 2001, so afterwards, I didn’t have anybody to talk with about it anymore. Not someone who was that close with me anyway.

I didn’t have any resources to learn from about this. I’m old enough to have grown up not having constant internet access in my life. Funny thing, I thought we were the shit because we had a car phone. Anybody remember that? Motorola on the analog cellular service, baby! That was pretty sweet. And all the young people have no idea what I’m talking about. That’s okay. They can Google it or ask Siri or Alexa or whatever the computer’s name is.

Anyway, tons of experience of having to learn really complex shit about myself on my own. Racism. Languages. Transgender identity. How many phone numbers I could remember at any given time. Bereavement. Coming into adulthood and being able to cope with all these different aspects of my own intersectionality. It’s a process, and an ongoing one at that.

[music break]

Big fast forward to when I became blind. There is no do-it-yourself way of figuring out how to cope with that kind of sudden onset. There’s just no way. And in my situation, what created the sudden onset was because of someone’s hatred of my being a transgender person of colour.

Honestly, I think that was what made it the most devastating. The loss of my sightedness is its own process that I work through every day. And yeah, there are days that I really hate being blind. But what I have come to understand is that while I definitely miss being sighted, it’s having to learn how to deal with the constancy of ableism and anti-blindness. It’s just… it’s just incredibly complex.

And all these different aspects of intersectionality, and everything that comes with it, is exponentiated in this really indescribable way. Like, how people treat me as a person of colour, as a transgender person, as someone who’s not very tall and not thin… it’s incredibly different now that I am visibly disabled. Now that I am blind.

Some of the things that I have to deal with in terms of ableism and anti-blindness are things that people with other disabilities within different races, ethnicities, genders, social status, etc., are very different from what I have to deal with. It’s really confusing. The gaslighting… to say that it is overwhelming is quite the understatement.

So having to find balances to be able to process these things is really taxing. But at the same time, there are a lot of things that are beautiful about it. Being able to not necessarily relearn certain life skills, though that is a big part of it, but taking it in as learning different aspects of what I was already familiar with, can be this breathtakingly phenomenal experience.

I mean, okay. For example, I love to cook. And there’s a lot of people who love the fact that I love to cook. I’m pretty good at it. Once again, I’m really glad to have all this previous life experience of helping disabled people do things like cooking because, for a lot of things, I ended up just taking my own instruction and applying it to my first-person. I also got help from other people who are blind and get their first-person experience with it. Now that cooking isn’t a visual thing for me anymore, I feel like it’s evolved into this more intimate experience of a vital means of sustaining life.

But after a while, I realised that I was utilising these past experiences of teaching others how to cook in a way that wasn’t making a whole lot of room for me to accept that this new blindness wasn’t temporary. My blindness is permanent. And while I do have a very limited amount of visibility out of my right eye, it’s really just patterns of what evolves into somewhat distinguishable blurs. Sometimes the blurs are just arbitrary interpretations of whatever my brain is able to process that day. It’s hard. And it’s going to always be hard.

Now, I know a lot of people have this knee-jerk reaction to tell me “it just take some getting used to”, or that I just need to have some type of hope that there’s a “fix” or a “cure” somewhere that science hasn’t come up with yet, or some other thing that folks just try to convince me that ending blindness is, ironically, this light at the end of a tunnel. Blah blah blah “well-meaning intentions” or whatever. It’s nonsense. It doesn’t mean anything.

Other people’s intentions are not relevant when it comes to the reality of someone else’s first-person life. There’s nothing that is inherently terrible about being disabled. There’s nothing that’s inherently terrible about being blind. Saying words like ‘disabled’, ‘disability’, ‘blindness’… These aren’t bad words. These are forms of identities that are very real and very much an integral part of who someone is as a person.

In one of my favourite books, it’s titled salt. by Nayyirah Waheed. One of her poems, she writes:

never
trust anyone
who says
they do not see color.
this means
to them
you are invisible.

–is”

As a person of colour, this is something that resonates so deeply with me. Because I have had to deal with a constancy of erasure due to racism, colourism; especially in the dynamic that I had growing up. In a lot of situations, I had to allow myself to be erased as a means of self-preservation. I have become exceptionally good at code-switching, and it is really painful to have to do that all the time, but it is what it is.

But I can’t erase my own disabilities. I can’t erase my own blindness. And as disgustingly dehumanising ableism is, and how disturbing anti-blindness manifests and affects people like me, I have been able to learn how to dig my heels in the ground in ways that I would have never been able to do if I wasn’t disabled, if I wasn’t blind.

So it’s one hell of a continual learning curve, but it is mine.

It is mine.

[outro music begins]

And that concludes the second episode of the Blind in Philadelphia podcast. Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. To learn more, Visit us at blindinphiladelphia.com. Please consider becoming a Patron on patreon.com/blindinphiladelphia.

Thanks again for listening. I’m Japheth Grimm. I hope your day is kind to you. Don’t forget, you are beautiful.

[outro music ends]

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Show Notes:
Blind in Philadelphia Podcast
Episode 2: A Series of Learning Curves
Released: December 10, 2018
Written and voiced: Japheth Grimm
Music Credit: Audiobinger – “The Garden State”; Yan Terrien – “Rose Baba” Music source: http://freemusicarchive.org/