I’ve told this story many times over the year during the many presentations I have given on this topic. I apologize to anyone who is tired of hearing it.

I have been in the field of accessible web design since the mid-1990s when I became the “Webmaster” for a small coastal Maine college. Things were rather rudimentary then, HTML 2.0, CSS level 1 was just invented, and JavaScript was very experimental. Most computer monitors were monochrome, Windows 95 was “exciting”, and the fastest desktops were 486s with 2 MB of RAM.

Always a geek at heart who aspired to be an engineer, I ended up with degrees in social sciences and education. I had worked with people with disabilities for years when I became friendly with a young blind man who told me of how he longed for the days before browsers and graphic user interfaces (GUI); back to the old days of line code and text when content was accessible to him. So, when I got super interested in web design and jumped in with both feet, I had accessibility in mind…

I joined a small group of like-minded folks on a listserv associated with a new grant program calling itself, “Web Accessibility in Mind.” You know it as WebAIM. There were only a few hundred “members” in those days and the list quickly became the go-to resource for questions about accessible web design or for those wanted to learn about the latest technique, law, or policy. We were a great bunch and generally rather congenial until one day a ruckus broke out between two list members. The topic: “What is a ‘good’ Alternative Description?” It seemed the two individuals had different opinions on the topic. And, both were rather passionate, neither side willing to give in.

I, like most of the others in the list, read each of the responses carefully, politely refraining from adding our opinions as both member had identified themselves as being blind and competent users of screen reader technology. Indeed, who better to discuss the vagaries of alternative descriptions than two real life users who depended on alternative descriptions.

The “conversation” – perhaps better described as “debate” – went on for several days, with multiple postings each day. Over the course of this time, we learned one of the individuals was female, the other seemed to be an older man, cantankerous and a bit rigid.

The young woman believed Alternative Descriptions should be lengthy, giving lots of information about the foreground, the background, and subtle details of the image. She wanted to know the colors and details like, “was this a picture of an outdoor scene?” and “what time of day the image was taken?” For her, the more information, the better.

He wanted none of it and did not care for any of “that stuff.” The term “null Alt” was used in those days for the ALT=“” HTML code that tells the screen reader application to ignore images. He vehemently expressed his opinion that all images should be “nulled.”

And so, as the debate continued, neither party was able to convince the opposition. We in the background were perhaps fascinated and clearly a bit confused. I do not remember how it ended. Perhaps it’s safe to say it was a draw. Personally, I was left bewildered.

Recently, I attended a webinar on brain injury and the presenter was a medical doctor who treats people with head injuries. He displayed the following quote from one of his patients: “If you’ve seen one person with a brain injury, you’ve seen one person with a brain injury.”

I immediately thought of the two blind people debating alternative descriptions and thought: “If you’ve seen one person with blindness, you’ve seen one person with blindness.”

I’ve told the story about the two blind people many times over the years, and it usually results in a good discussion. People eventually figure out that yes, he was born blind, and that she had recently and gradually lost her sight. He had never known vision, color, shadows. She, perhaps grieving her loss, wanting more.

An interesting blog on Verge by writer Kait Sanchez got me again thinking about “Great Alt Description Debate.” In this article, the writer details the experiences of some folks with low vision and blindness coping with the challenges of social media. Retelling stories of the sometime hilarious alternative descriptions created by a platform’s Artificial Intelligence the author ends with a description the frustrations of one user who simply longs to still be “part of the social fabric.”

This Sanchez comment is particularly poignant:

“Writing an image description for an esoteric meme can feel like explaining internet culture to your grandparents: you suddenly don’t know how to describe what exactly made you laugh. The complicated nature of meme literacy isn’t something we can blame on platforms — it’s just not something the average person is used to putting into words.”

When, in my consultations and training people ask me the loaded question directly after I have told them the story of the two blind people – “So, just what is a good Alternative Description?”

“Context,” I say.

What is the purpose of the image in the document?

Is it a “pretty picture?” Is it there simply to evoke some emotional response, or to hook you to some memory?

Or is the image the topic of the conversation?

An article about the Mona Lisa will likely include numerous images of the said painting. Perhaps some are close-up images detailing specific elements that are elucidated in the text. In this example, the whole document is the “Alternative Description.”

I always recommend: “Try to keep your alternative descriptions short and sweet.”

In the example of the “pretty picture,” a literal description, or perhaps the “null” alt is just fine. For the Mona Lisa example, the alternative description could be “Fig 1: close up of Mona Lisa’s smile.”

When you read Kait Sanchez’ article I think you will see how images and social media put a whole new spin on my advice. For social media, particularly those platforms that are entirely graphical or video based, I have no sound advice except perhaps not to use them. If you need to convey an important message to diverse populations, you need to use an alternative means of communication: multiple formats and/or platforms.

Don’t expect that technology can change everything.

ADDENDUM: I’m now reading “Writing great alt text: Emotion matters.” It’s worth reading…