Representation in alt text

Impressionist painting of a female Black doctor racing out to hand a file folder to Filipino woman in a wheelchair. Both are smiling.
Credit: Aaron Gustafson × DALL·E

Inclusion can take many forms.

Throughout my career, I’ve often defaulted to using alt text for photography with people in it that mentions the people, but rarely mentions things like their gender, skin tone, and the like. Often this was because I thought about people as just, well, people. Their individual characteristics were almost always immaterial to the primary purpose of describing the photo. If their difference served a purpose in the context, I included it, but that was my line.

In reading this piece from Léonie, however, I realized that I was approaching my image labeling from a very privileged position. I didn’t include information about these individuals because I am privileged. In my life experience, my gender, race, orientation, etc. seemed—to me—unimportant because these attributes are highly valued by the society I exist in. Because I didn’t see the value of my own attributes, I could sweep away other people’s differences and focus on their human-ness. And that can seem like a good thing, but it’s insidious. Like exclaiming “I don’t see color” it erases people and their many intersecting identities.

By including information about people’s physical attributes in the alt text we author, we can both normalize and embrace our differences. We can celebrate diversity and promote representation.

To describe a photo as “Doctor Smith handing a file to a colleague” is not nearly as meaningful as “Doctor Smith, a Black woman, handing a file to her office manager, Jenifer Jones, a Filipino woman who uses a wheelchair.” If I was blind, I could learn a lot of useful information about the medical practice from this extra bit of detail. Taking it further, if I was Black, I might feel more comfortable seeing Doctor Smith, knowing she was Black as well (especially given the unequal treatment Black folks receive in the U.S. medical system). If I use a support cane to get around, knowing the office manager uses a wheelchair tells me a good portion of the office is likely to offer generous pathways for me to walk around.

So I’m going to take Léonie’s advice to heart and work on my making my alt text more inclusive. The one area I will exercise restraint in my descriptions, however, is with respect to assigning folks a gender identity. Unless I have explicit knowledge of how they identify, it’s something best left to them to share.