A Quick Lesson on Writing Alt-Text

Submitted by Emily Shuman on Mon, 02/04/2019

If you follow the Rocky Mountain ADA Center’s social media accounts, you may have noticed that we often include alternative text, or alt-text, in posts that contain images. The purpose of alt-text is to provide a description of an image for people who for some reason can’t see the image. Among others, alt-text helps people who are blind, low vision, or deafblind.

Using alt-text to accompany pictures in digital presentations, social media posts, blog articles and website pages is an easy way to make your digital content much more accessible to people who use screen readers to access the web.

In some cases, having an accessible website is required by the ADA. Beyond ADA requirements, though, there are many reasons to consider increasing the accessibility of your online content. By being more accessible, you’re able to increase your reach and therefore the effectiveness of the message you’re delivering. By leading the way with online accessibility, you have an opportunity to demonstrate inclusivity and positively impact cultural norms.

People who benefit from your efforts to be accessible will be loyal audiences who refer their friends. This is especially good for businesses who will otherwise be missing out on the more than $400 billion of disposable income that people with disabilities across the globe have to spend each year.

Major companies are taking note of this, to be sure. For example, Microsoft has made accessibility a top priority. Just one example of this is the many things you can do in PowerPoint to make presentations accessible. Instagram recently announced the addition of an alt-text feature on their platform, which catches them up to what Twitter and Facebook are already doing.

Whenever I’m talking about alt-text, the question I get most often is not ‘why,’ but ‘how.’ How much detail do I need to go into? Is there a word limit?

There are three simple rules to follow when it comes to writing alt-text:

  1. Convey what’s meaningful.

Make sure that your alt-text is communicating what’s important about the picture. Maybe the expression on someone’s face shows an emotion or something happening in the background of the picture is important to the story told in the picture. Whatever the picture adds to the content overall should also come through in the alt-text.

  1. Be Concise.

In general, aim for a maximum of 100 characters, or about 20 words, for your alt-text. You want to be clear about what is in the picture and what’s meaningful about it without being overly specific.

Here’s an example:

Appetizing breakfast of waffles with toppings and tea.


Concise: Appetizing breakfast of waffles with toppings and tea.

Not concise: Belgian homemade waffles covered in blueberries and rainbow-colored sprinkles on pink plates with embroidered napkins and a cup of tea with milk and a teapot all laid on hexagon white tiles.

Notice that both versions of alt-text for this picture convey what’s meaningful in the pictures. However, the second version includes more detail than is probably needed.

3. Consider the Context

The content of your alt-text will vary depending on the context in which it’s being used.

Let’s look again at the picture above. The alt-text there is formatted in a way that gives an ‘at a glance’ snapshot of what’s in the picture. What if the picture was contained in an article about food photography? The alt-text would need to be written in a way that conveys what’s meaningful in that context. So, you might say something like, “Overhead, close-up shot of breakfast. Dark blue and bright red accents contrast with the light colors of the table and dishware.”

There you have it – the Three C’s of Writing Alt-Text: Convey what is meaningful, be Concise, and consider the Context!

As you continue with your alt-texting endeavors, please know that the Rocky Mountain ADA Center is happy to answer questions and help you work through creating accessible content.

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