One of my last visual memories was of sitting in the back of my family's van as we drove back home, and feeling really sick. When we pulled up to our house, I saw our backyard. Then everything went black. For several months, all I saw were dark shapes and silhouettes in my hospital room. A virus led me to lose most of my vision.
So I learned how to navigate my surroundings with a cane and to read Braille. Today, I'm a physics major at university and a software developer. I make things out of code. I have a guide dog. If I'm holding a bus ticket in my hand, to see the letter "A" for adult on it, I have to hold it so close that my eyelashes touch the paper.
A piece of software known as a screen reader allows me to access most things on a computer or smartphone. This software is able to turn the text on screen into synthesized speech. But when I encounter a picture, I often just hear "image." If a picture is worth a thousand words, this single word certainly never does them justice. Fortunately, you can provide descriptive text to be read instead of "image." This text is called "alt text."
November was Assistive Technology Awareness Month. Assistive technology covers everything from wheelchairs and canes, to screen readers, picture communication boards and much more. But describing images in the social media posts and web content that you publish is the only way this technology can give me the full meaning being conveyed. Here's why you should take the time to do it.
First, many images contain text. If you take a screenshot of text, my screen reader is only able to identify that there's an image, leaving me to wonder if I'm missing the punchline of a joke, key information I need to act or a picture that would bring me great joy.
Second, there is no technology that can substitute for you typing in descriptions with your images. Some apps and websites have attempted to design algorithms that tag objects and recognize text in images. But these solutions are often inaccurate, miss critical information, and are not wide-spread. True accessibility depends on regular users of social media platforms adding descriptions to the photos they share to their timelines and feeds, and non-social media sites having their web designers keep accessibility in mind as their sites are developed.
Lastly, I don't like being left out. When I wake up every day, and am unable to participate in the things that my friends and acquaintances participate in, it can feel like I don't really matter.
Visual communication is not a nice-to-have. It's as essential as written communication. Pictures and graphs convey ideas and information that add to the overall meaning being transmitted. I shouldn't lose out on understanding the meaning being shared just because I'm blind.
Not describing images limits how much I can impact the world. It disadvantages both me and my wider community. Taking the time and making the effort to make all of your social media posts and web content as accessible as possible is ultimately about admitting others into your world and not leaving anyone behind.
Katie Durden is a Beaverton resident.
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