Alternative text (alt text) is probably the most confusing topic when thinking about accessibility. In general, alt text is adding a description to a picture, table, graph, or any image in a Word document, PowerPoint, PDF, or Excel which can be read by a screen reader. The key is what you put in for alt text. It needs to be a description of what the picture, table, or graph is. If it is a picture of Harry Truman, the alt text could be “Harry Truman.” If it is a picture of an atom, the alt text might need to be much more descriptive of what the picture is showing. It is important to think more critically about what images we put in documents, and what information we assume people will get out of the image.
On the COLRS website are some images, along with the alt text and captions. The alt text will only be read by a screen reader. The captions will be read be everyone. These are all taken from an anthropology course developed by Alex Markovic, Ph.D. at UIC, who gave permission to share his materials. It is important to note that he had never taken an online class, nor taught an online class, and he was developing the first online anthropology class for UIC. The idea of alt text was new to him. The only instructions he was given were to describe the pictures by thinking about what he’d like a visually impaired student to get out of the pictures included in the class. He did a wonderful job on 100+ images in his course. Below are sample of them.