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A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: The Importance of Accessibility

Posted on: January 26, 2024

By Stacy Scott and Brianna Walker

A digital “accessible” text is one that provides equal opportunity to all readers, including those with visual or print impairments. Taylor & Francis is committed to the supply of accessible content, ensuring as many readers as possible have access to the content we publish so that we can uphold our core value: to foster human progress through knowledge. There are many elements to accessibility, and one of the biggest questions is, how do we make visual aspects such as images, charts, and diagrams accessible to those who are blind or have a visual impairment? What is the consequence of not providing these descriptions?

The fact is, potential students in many parts of the world are still turned away from subjects thought to be ‘too visual’. Accessing subject areas within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) will undoubtedly continue to be one of the biggest challenges faced by students, educators, and publishers due to their heavy reliance on pictorial detail and a lack of description.

Alternative text, also known as alt text, is a written description of an image that users can access to make sense of the image if they can't view it. Alt text sits behind the image, chart, or graph, so it can be read aloud as it is encountered by a Text-to-speech (TTS) user, but it cannot be seen on the surface. Alt text is typically used to describe content requiring a shorter description and is often seen in social media, for example, describing a picture accompanying a Tweet.

If pictures, images, and diagrams are not described and, therefore, are inaccessible, then the full content of the curriculum is not accessible. Such lack of access for a person, especially a person with a disability or social bias to overcome, could have a detrimental effect on that person’s life, education, future work prospects, independence, and livelihood.

Taylor & Francis introduced alt text into our eBook workflows in 2020, and more than 4,000 titles have been published with alt text so far, and this number is growing exponentially. Several key journal products have started integrating alt text as well. Long descriptions are also supplied, where necessary, for more complex images. These lengthier descriptions are often used in STEM subjects, describing complicated Mathematical notation, detailed graphs of nodes and vertices, or diagrams in a science or engineering book.

We rely heavily on our authors as the main source of knowledge and creation for their content. Authors have the power to enable accessibility while maintaining editorial control over the image descriptions used in their titles. These contributions will ensure the book is ‘born accessible’ without the added delay of bringing a third party on board to create alt text.

As part of this project, we launched an accessibility guidance for authors and contributors. This is available on the Routledge website and contains a guide to writing alt text, as well as several example images grouped by subject category. This site supports authors and contributors with the submission of alt text for images with their final manuscripts and is meant to be used alongside the existing Books Publishing Guidelines.

Authors are supported and encouraged to write image descriptions for new books and those that have already been published. Many authors are providing wonderful, fully accessible content and enjoy doing so, too. This is evidenced by some wonderful author testimonies we have received, which can be found on the Routledge website.

"When I first thought about doing alt text, I thought it would be really cumbersome. Actually, writing the alt text made me greatly appreciate the challenges some individuals may face interpreting technical diagrams. I think it has made me think a lot more about how to draw figures that are easier to understand and explain to others! It's great to work with a publisher and editors who value accessibility in technical writing."

 – Gedare Bloom, Author of Real-Time Systems Development with RTEMS and Multicore Processors

A picture is worth a thousand words, but it doesn’t take a thousand words to open up your pictures and images to those who are unable to see them. Adding alt text and describing what your picture, diagram, or graph shows makes your content inclusive to everybody, can bring stories alive, and makes subjects easier to understand. Descriptions create pictures in the mind, and for those who cannot see pictures, the imagination becomes the most powerful tool.