What are image descriptions and why are they all over Instagram?


Let’s talk about what ‘ID’ means on your Insta.

It can’t just be me that’s noticed lots of people describing their Instagram posts in their captions. Something I only started seeing a few months ago is all of a sudden an everyday occurrence on my feed.

And while I sort of got that it’s for visually impaired people, I didn’t really know how it worked. Should I be writing image descriptions, or is that just jumping on the bandwagon of something I know nothing about?

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If I’m being honest, there’s also just not a lot out there about it. A simple Google search will simply and unemotionally tell you about Instagram’s alt text feature which was released back in 2018 (read: no helpful results). You’re still left wondering ‘But why and for who?’.

So I sat down with Ellie Thompson, the Senior Communications Officer at Diversity and Ability, to help spell it out for us. “An image description is basically a written description or explanation of a photo. There’s nuance within that. The image description is usually something that’s written into the body of the text.

“Instagram is one of the areas where it’s been really visible and where maybe we’ve seen the most growth. I think that’s probably because it’s a visual platform and that’s kind of how it’s designed,” she tells me.

So first things first, who are these actually for? 

I initially thought image descriptions only benefitted visually impaired people using screen readers to access social media, but it turns out it’s way bigger than that. According to Ellie, “the audience you’re including by using image descriptions is actually much wider”.

“For example, people with visual processing differences or different kinds of styles of learning and relating to the world. Autistic or dyslexic people might benefit from having something written in text rather than in an image of text. People with sensory processing differences like a chronic pain condition or chronic illness or fatigue.”

If you’re thinking about the alt text feature on Instagram, and whether we really need to be using both it and image descriptions, I wondered the same thing. Back in 2018, Instagram introduced alt text which functions basically in the same way, but is just more behind the scenes. Ellie says we should be using both, almost all of the time. 

“Not everyone who will benefit from having an image read out to them has access to a screen reader. There are massive barriers in terms of access to the existing technology that would benefit people.

“So having the image description means that people who maybe didn’t realise that this is something that would benefit them can now have the image described in a different way, in a way that’s more relatable and engaging.”

What are the dos and don’ts of writing an image description?

For Ellie, it’s all about practice and intuition – what you and I instinctively think is the most important part of the image probably is. But really, “it’s definitely a case of practice. It’s just about replicating that same experience as those of us who benefit from seeing images,” she says.

“It can be quite daunting to look at an image and try to put that into words. The formula which the web accessibility guidelines recommend is object, action, context – describe the main object of the image, the action that is related to that object and then finish off with the context.

“One thing that’s really important in terms of inclusive communication is to describe people really comprehensively. Facial expressions are really important to write in a good image description. I think also the characteristics of a person, if known, are really important because we want to ensure that we’re using diverse images and that we’re including everyone in the use of those diverse images.

“Internally, we describe the gender, the race and the disability of our staff when we upload photos of them because it’s important that people get that same kind of idea of the richness of diversity of our photos. The crucial thing there is to give whatever information is known and avoid giving information that isn’t known, so that’s really key for things like gender as well.

“In terms of what not to include, I know from experience that using sight-related words is a massive turn off really for people who benefit from image descriptions. You could say ‘you can see that a man is picking up a coffee from the counter’ or ‘in the background, a tree is visible’, but that’s just not the case for anyone who’s reading that image description.

“It is important to make sure that someone who’s reading the image description gets the actual image, rather than the way that you’ve interpreted the image.”

Who should be including image descriptions?

“Everyone should be doing it, in every situation. I think that’s the case for all accessible and inclusive communications. Whether you’re uploading photos to your Facebook that just your relatives are going to see or you’re adding something to your Instagram story, you should be captioning it no matter who you believe your audience is because you will be excluding people by not using accessible and inclusive practices.

“We need this to be commonplace, this should be a compulsory phase and stage of uploading photos to social media. The more people do it, the more it will become commonplace. We need it to be done by everyone all the time.

“I also think it’s a case of exemplifying best practice and putting it out there that this is something that you’re doing. I think it is an important thing to be doing and to encourage others to do. By making your image descriptions visible, we are starting a conversation about what they are and what they’re for.”

Why is including image descriptions not yet common practice?

“One of the massive issues with this is societal disablism, so the idea that social media platforms aren’t for disabled people or people who are visually impaired. I think conversations are increasing, so we are talking about it more and more, but it’s still far from being common practice.

“I think there’s a barrier inherent in the social media platform, that they don’t make it as accessible as possible. I believe it should be a compulsory phase for uploading an image to include the image description or the alt text.

“Instead, what we have on Instagram is a tiny, tiny grey button that says advanced settings and then another button to press that says add alt text. So the platforms aren’t encouraging this, they aren’t making it commonplace,” she explains.

Ellie’s main message is that the fear of getting it wrong shouldn’t stop you from trying. “Writing good image descriptions is about practice and experience and any alt text or image description is better than none.”

For more on image descriptions, try this.

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