Reading systems and screenreaders can usually convert text to speech, but they cannot convert images to text. We use alt text ("alternative text") to replace the image for screenreaders.
A screenreader will stop on the image and read the alt-text that you have written. This alt-text is not visual, but is embedded in the code of the ebook. Part of your job is to write these descriptions. The content of the alt-text depends on the type/purpose of the image.
Descriptions are generally concise. There are no hard rules on how long alt-text should be, but they are usually a short phrase or at the most, a couple of sentences. This is to help avoid cognitive overload.
The term image description is an umbrella term referring to the concept of offering descriptions of images in text form. An image description conveys the same or equivalent information that a sighted reader would get when they look at a picture to someone with a print disability such as those who are blind or visually impaired. Image descriptions can be included in digital content in two forms: alt-text for simple and medium complexity images and long description for complex images.
This section will show you how to work with a variety of images, and explain how to insert and write alt-text descriptions.
Remember, you are replacing visual information with text, not just describing an image. It is very important you follow these guidelines so your descriptions are clear to the reader and do not cause any confusion or cognitive issues.
For a selection of samples, please visit this page: Samples of alt text.
Alt-text is done differently for Children's Picture Books and Comics. Please visit their respective pages Alt-Text for Picture Books and Comic Book/Graphic Novel Description: Introduction for more information.
Remove all decorative images including:
If unsure, ask in the Q and A section.
Ensure that the image (and caption if present) is set to
inline with text so that the text does not flow around the image and between paragraphs (i.e. not breaking up the middle of a sentence or paragraph).
To set the wrapping style as
in-line with text:
In Line with Text
Software can only detect and properly read the alt text associated with an image when it is placed
In Line with Text.
For large images, resize them so they fit on the page with their caption and surrounding text. See How to Resize Images in Word for how to do this.
If a caption exists in the original ebook, then you must insert it for the corresponding image in the Word doc file. See Captions for instructions.
To add Alt-text to an image:
descriptionfield (leave the title field blank)
The main guidelines for writing alt-text are as follows:
For examples, see our Samples page.
If you have a book that is all black and white images, or another specific yet consistent style, you only need to provide this information in the first image description–don’t repeat it in the following images. For example, the first image alt-text would read: "A black and white photograph of an teenage Asian girl looking out a window on a train." All following images will only have the image description without the phrase "A black and white photograph" (i.e. "The teenage Asian girl stands on the platform of a train station with her luggage on the ground beside her. She waves with a smile on her face.").
Same is true if there is as style of image that is different from the others (e.g. Family photographs and one child's drawing)
Context is key!
Read the text around the image. If there is a person, place, or object that is named in the text, then use it in your description. Do not name characters in images before they are introduced in the text.
If there is a repeated character or place, only describe in detail the first time and then simply name the character/place in the following images.
You may find that the image is already described in the text. You don't have to describe it again in full, but add some details that are not given to describe the image avoiding repetition.
Only write about what you see and what you know. Alt text should always provide a direct representation of the image and what it conveys visually.
When working with a novel, try to warm it up a little bit, because your descriptions need to help drive the narrative forward. Image descriptions are really an art, not a science.
We as humans, tend to shy away from discussing ethnicity, race, gender, disability, and age for fear that we would misjudge and use the wrong language but remember that whether you want to or not, you can immediately see these characteristics when you look at a photo. This is information that people with print disabilities should get as well so that readers can make their own interpretations.
In order to be objective, we suggest using the following terminology to describe skin tone:
This is the same system that is used to label emojis with different skin tones. You can also use terms such as Black, White, Asian, Middle Eastern, etc. but only if it can be determined in the surrounding text.
You can identify the subject as male or female, man or woman, only if it can be clearly identified. Try to describe the physical characteristics and avoid using the terms “masculine” or “feminine” since it is more interpretive than descriptive. There is a delicate balance to strike between inclusive language and robust description; do your best, and ask for opinions from others if you need to.
Avoid describing age by prescribing a number or the decade because someone could appear young but is in their fifties. Instead, use terms such as:
Expressions can be tricky. Words and phrases such as “grinning”, “intense look”, or “serious expression”, might be somewhat interpretive, depending on the context. If possible, describe how the physical characteristics appear. For example, instead of saying “neutral look” we can say “mouth closed and lips touching”; instead of saying “surprised look”, say “raised eyebrows and a wide open mouth”.
Check out the Accessible Publishing website's Guide to Image Description for more information on writing alt-text. This page was created by our accessibility testing team and is the current gold standard for alt-text description in Canada.
The following examples are from the same book: The Canadian Cowboy Cookbook. One image is not described in the surrounding text, the other is described in the surrounding text.
The first step is to scan the paragraph above and below the image, and read the caption if it has been provided.
If the image is not described in surrounding text, simply apply the basic rules of Alt- text description.
After I did a quick scan of the surrounding text I noted that this image is NOT described in the text, but it is at the beginning of the section of this book about Chuckwagons. I am looking at the context here for this image. I also note that this book is a collection of recipes and the history of Canadian Cowboys. I need to take this into consideration when describing this image.
We want to keep the audience in mind and aim to be concise, objective and use plan language in present active tense.
The following alt-text described the image given the context:
[Alt-Text]: An elderly cowboy drives a chuckwagon through a wide and shallow river. The wagon has an open top and carries a large wooden crate in the back. Two dark coloured mules pull the wagon forward through the river.
If the image is described in surrounding text, you still need to describe the image.
Give a brief overview of the image to support the description in the surrounding text without repeating what is already described. If there are details in the image that are not mentioned in the surrounding text you can add them to your description if they are useful to your audience.
[Alt-Text]: Open mess box set up for a meal.
The image is described in detail in the surrounding text, so it only requires a simple description.
We create longer, complex descriptions for any image that contains complex information or data. Common examples are Maps, Graphs, Charts and Diagrams. We can also create longer, complex descriptions when we need to transcribe an image, such as an image of a letter. If you are not sure if your image requires a complex description, ask in the Q&A section.
For images that require more complex or extended descriptions we create two descriptions:
See the link below the image for an extended description.
There are two types of images that deal with text:
The most common images of text are Tables and Lists, these need to be transcribed. If they are rendered as images they will not be accessible. In these cases, to remediate this, it is necessary to create the table and list directly into the book and remove the image.
If there is an image of a table, simply recreate the table within Word following the directions in the Tables Section. Then delete the image of the table once you are done.
If there is an image of a list, simple recreate the list with in Word following the directions in the List Section. Then delete the image of the list once you are done.
This one is a bit of a judgement call. It depends on the context of the image.
If it’s critical to understanding the book that readers know exactly what was asked in the survey then we want to transcribe the entire survey and then add a Producer's Note at the beginning of the book to explain what we have done.
For blank lines you can replace them with
Some images in this book have been transcribed from the original ebook to improve accessibility.
If it doesn’t matter to the reading experience what the details of the survey are then basic alt-text will do. There are some great examples on how to write alt-text here.
Remember, context is key. When in doubt, post a question on the wiki.
Examples of images with text include images of newspaper headlines, archival advertisements, road signs, etc..
These are good examples of the importance of context. If there is an image of a newspaper headline, chances are that you only need to transcribe the headline. If there is an image of an Advertisement you probably don't have to transcribe the text, unless it is a book about the history of Advertisements and the content of the text is important to the reader. Context is key!
To indicate that there is text, we suggest using words such as “Text says” or simply “text” followed by a colon and then the text in quotes.
Another example of images of text is having individual words or short phrases rendered as images. This is highly discouraged, as it creates many problems for different readers, including those accessing your title in small screen devices. In these cases, to remediate this, it is necessary to transcribe the text and remove the image of the word.
This mistake is more common with words in other languages or alphabets. Always transcribe.
If the image is written in another alphabet you may have to either use unicode or set up your keyboard to type that alphabet. Please see the Languages section for more information.
Check out these excellent tutorials on writing alternative text descriptions:
For more image description guidelines and examples, refer to:
Q: Hello! I have a question about an image in the book I'm working on, "Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus". In the Prologue, every time the author writes "Muhammad", he inserts a small image. The footnote explains that the image is a symbol representing an Arabic phrase: "peace and blessings of Allah be upon him". I'm thinking of handling this by deleting the image of the symbol and replacing it with the phrase in brackets. What do you think? If I do that, should I insert a prod note explaining what I did?
A: In this case you would treat it as a regular image and insert the Alt-Text: symbol representing an Arabic phrase: "peace and blessings of Allah be upon him". You would then put a Producers Note at the beginning of the book to explain why you did this. For more info see here.
Q: I'm trying to keep in mind the aim for clarity and focus on relevant information, but I'm struggling with this. One of the first maps in this book is a map of the North-West area of Canada with a lot of lakes, rivers, and important villages labeled. Throughout the book, there are a few other maps which "zoom in" on specific areas which have already been described in this larger map, perhaps with some added details. Do I need to re-describe the area exactly? Or how should I proceed with these cases? For example, I've included the large map of The North-West and a map of Red River. Lots of the info in the Red River map are already present/described in the North-West map.
A: Maps are challenging for anyone. If you haven't already checked it out, you should go look at the Alt-text samples we have on the wiki (there are two map examples that could help.) To answer your questions: I would not repeat what has already been described. You can start the zoomed in descriptions with something along the lines of 'This map is a closer image of the Red River area…' you could include some sweeping description like "it includes the areas between these rivers" or "it is bordered by these rivers" etc. Then you can add more detail into. Remember that starting big and going small can help in these cases. I also recommend opening a new document to work on the descriptions, so you can easily edit and rewrite as you go. It is good to remember what the purpose of the map is, and to base your description on that purpose. In this case it looks like the map is meant to show the layout of the land, so you should describe it in a way the listener can get a sense of the layout. Where are the rivers and important points? Where to do they lead to. You can start big (this is a map of this area that features rivers and this lake) then start at one point and work your way through the map like you are traveling through it. Reading it aloud will also help.
Q: One more question from His Needs, Her Needs. At the very end of the book, there are 5 full-page images that are advertisements for other books by the author, for his website, and for his publisher. They aren't decorative but I'm not sure how important it is to keep them (and therefore add alt-text to describe their content). Would you recommend deleting them or keeping them?
A: You can delete these images.
Q: In Appendix B of His Needs, Her Needs, there is a 10 page questionnaire but each page is an image file that contains text, not actually text. Am I right that I should transcribe the text from each image and then delete the image files?
A: In this instance the context is critical to understanding the book, and should be transcribed, the images should be removed, and a Producer's Note should be places at the beginning of the book explaining this has been done. I took a peek at some other parts of the book, and there seems to be other surveys as well. When it comes to these sorts of images it depends again on context, and is a judgement call. If the details of the survey is critical to the understanding of the book, then we do the transcription and Prod Not as mentioned above; if the survey is not critical to the understanding the book then simple Alt-Text is enough (remember to keep the Alt-text brief and concise, and you can refer to our Alt text examples for some inspiration if you need it.) There is a Question and Answer a bit further down on this page that addresses this as well for your reference. You can also see the section on Image and Surveys for more information.
Q: What do I do when a single caption refers to and describes two different images? Is it okay to give both images the same caption? ie. copy and paste the caption and apply it once to the first image and then again to the second image?
A: You only have to apply the caption to one of the photos. With the Alt-text and the placing of the images the reader will be able to figure out what is going on.
A: It depends on the context of the image. If it’s critical to understanding the book that readers know exactly what was asked in the survey then we might want to translate the entire survey content in a prodnote; otherwise, if it doesn’t really matter to the reading experience what the details of the survey are then alt-text will do. It’s a bit of a judgement call.
Q: If there is a photograph of a letter, should we transcribe it into the alt-text?
A: It depends on two factors that should be taken into consideration when writing alternative text (requires some judgement):
Q: For images that contain a lot of information (such as an Army record that contains a lot of text, finger prints, tables, etc.), what is recommended in terms of Alt Text?
A: Very good question! Image descriptions can be tricky. The first question I like to consider is the purpose of the image: is it decorative? for visual interest only? provide essential information? We also consider if it's adequately described in the surrounding content already.
Let's take "Shaw's US Army Record" image from Rich man, poor man as an example (below). There's a lot of text embedded within this image.
What's the purpose? This image is located at the end of the book (in the biography section) and a brief caption is provided. I haven't read the book, but I think the general purpose of the image is to give the reader a sense of what his Army record looked like, so the alternative text could describe some essential things that we can glean from the record, such as: this is his "Military Record and Report of Separation, Certificate of Service" and it contains both personal data and information about his military history.
What do I see? How much information we want to provide about his personal and military history depends on: 1) what we can actually see! (the image quality is poor, so most likely the author doesn't think it's very important that we see or know the details), and 2) what information might readers want to know that's here and isn't already in the book.
To be honest, I can't make out much information here, so I think it would be perfectly appropriate to leave out specific personal and military history details from the Alternative Text description.
For further exploration: Diagram Center is the authority on image descriptions and they have great guidelines and training material: Image Description Training