Dilemmas with Alternative Text

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Dilemmas with Alternative Text

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A11y / UDL Learning Community
Dilemmas with Alternative Text

AC Contact profile image
Author :
A11y / UDL Learning Community

Alternative Text

Alternative (alt) text describes visual images or objects within the context that they appear. It helps individuals that rely on assistive technology, such as screen readers to understand the provided content. A good description of an image or table can also help all students understand the purpose of the content and begin to practice viewing images and tables as experts.  

It may sounds like a simple process of describing an image, but depending on your content (graphic, animation, or table) or the purpose of your content, generating alt text can be challenging.  

In addition to providing alt-text resources below, we have compiled some alt text related experiences from faculty. We asked what challenges they have faced surrounding alt text in their academic content, what they have done to tackle these challenges, and what resources they would like to see to help with alt text concerns. Please share your own challenges or solutions in the comments! 

Who are We? 

We are the Accessible Course Design Learning Community. We are a group of faculty and staff that meets once a month and takes a practice-based approach to exploring accessibility and Universal Design for Learning.  

Alt-text Resources 

Faculty Experiences with Alt Text 


  1. What dilemmas or difficulties with alt text have you experienced? Are there any important types of images in your field that are particularly tricky to describe? Why? 
  2. How have you solved your difficulties/dilemmas (for now)? 
  3. Do you feel more is needed? Are there any technologies (real or imagined) that could help?  

Casey Henley, Neuroscience & Physiology 

  1. My undergraduate course content centers on students analyzing data from primary literature research articles. Alt text has proven to be quite challenging. The simple solution would be to describe the results of the graph, and tell the students the main takeaway message from the graph. However, the skill I am teaching in the course is for students to interpret the data and generate a conclusion on their own.  
  2. My current solution is to provide numerical data points. Sometimes this requires a rather detailed table if there are multiple time points and/or multiple experimental groups.  
  3. I do not feel my alt text solution gives an equivalent educational experience to students. As an individual without sight impairment, visualizing data in a graph is a completely different, more efficient experience for interpreting data compared to reading a clump of numbers in a table. I believe a technology that could create braille-like representations of the graphs would help the situation. A raised version of the graph could allow individuals to compare bars or lines. However, even this solution might not work for more complex graphs.  

Emilia Marcyk, Libraries Teaching & Learning 

  1. When I create tutorials with screenshots that show important features of websites or interfaces that students will need to notice in order to complete an assignment, I find it difficult to decide how much alt text to provide. Should I just describe the important features (such as search boxes or menu buttons that the student needs to interact with) or describe everything in the screenshot? 
  2. Currently, I provide a link to the active page with the screenshot, and only describe the important features that I am calling out in the screenshot in the alternate text. If the student needs greater context, they can go to the live page.  
  3. I would be nice to have the ability to embed directions into the live version of pages, rather than rely on screenshots to emphasize important aspects. There are tools that do this, but I don't have access to them currently.  

Heidi Chen, Online Master of Science in Food Safety program 

  1. For complicated data graphs, the instructors only talk about what the graph demonstrates or takeaways as Casey mentioned above. For posters we try to describe the content on them but it can get really long 
  2. No good solution for screenshots. We try to persuade our instructors to reduce using screenshots. 

Scott Mulrooney, Microbiology and Molecular Genetics 

  1. In my Introductory Microbiology MMG 301 (enrollment ~500), we use PowerPoint slides containing over 700 images. Almost all of these do not have alternative text, so I added the text to each image. It took several days of being "in the zone" but I got the job done. 
  2. As I said, a brute force approach was used to simple get the job done. 
  3. Textbook publishers are addressing this issue. I have spoken to several publisher reps and they all say that future editions of their textbooks will address accessibility. The problem I faced was that the edition we are currently using does not have alternative text for its images. In addition, I use images from other creative commons sources that does not have alternative text. I suppose that undergraduates who are very familiar with the subject could enter much of the alternative text. In recording material for online presentations, I do a lot of drawing and creation of diagrams. I am now careful to describe what I am creating as I speak in the recording. 

Antoinette Tessmer, Department of Finance 

  1. My challenge is in using alt text (or more likely another tool) to describe the content of an Excel sheet. (My course is 100% Excel-based) 
  2. I have not found a solution... 
  3. I am curious to learn about existing technology that could help. 

Anne Violin-Wigent, Romance and Classical Studies 

  1.  I teach French and teaching methods for foreign language teaching. The main dilemma is that the current methods encourage us to use visuals to present the meaning of new vocab and to avoid the use of English and translations. In addition, when teaching grammar, we highlight endings or whatever grammar point we're teaching so that we can make it salient and help students figure out grammatical rules on their own. For example, we use pink for feminine endings and blue for masculine endings (I know, stereotypical but it's helpful for what we do). Therefore, using alt text may go against the method we use. And I'm not sure how to reconcile this. 
  2. For some elements, it's easy to use bold or underline or italics to replace color. But at the same time, sometimes, it feels like something underlined is not as salient as something in bold. I personally like to use bold and color. 
  3.  We do not get a lot of students who request accessible material in French, and I'm not sure if it's because RCPD waives language requirements for them or because of other reasons. Regardless, I'm working (with a team) on developing new class material, especially the hybrid/online component and I'd love some guidelines.  
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Casey Henley Creating Equitable Instruction through Universal Design for Learning