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DOVP Week: Sarah von Schrader and Katie Steigerwalt on Alternate Text

This is a post from Sarah von Schrader and Katie Steigerwalt at the Yang Tan institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University. Sarah is a researcher and evaluator at the Institute, and Katie works with the Northeast ADA Center, which provides information, training, and technical assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act. One of our missions as an institute is to ensure that whether we are gathering or sharing information, that we create accessible materials for our wide range of audiences.

Lesson Learned:

This week we have highlighted the prevalence of disability in the U.S. and importance of “evaluation for all” and of course this includes sharing our evaluation data. We love data visualization as a powerful way to share information! However, not everyone may be able to access this information in all its visual glory. For example, individuals who are blind, visually impaired, or who have certain cognitive disabilities may not be able to access the critical points that are conveyed through colorful graphics, fancy tables, and detailed pictures. This audience most likely relies on the use of a screen reader, and while technology has made some marked advancements, a screen reader still will not be able to interpret any graphic without a little help.

Therefore, an important step in creating a fully accessible document is developing alternate text, or “alt text” for an image of graphic that is important to the meaning of the document. Alt text is descriptive text manually added to an image that is not visually displayed, but can be read by screen readers. You may notice sometimes when you are scrolling through a PDF and your mouse hovers over an image, descriptive text might spontaneously pop up – that’s alt text!

Hot Tips:

  1. Avoid repetition and wordiness – the descriptions should be concise as possible to get the important information across.
  2. Remember that alt text is primarily for people who are blind or have significant visual impairments – When you describe a chart or graph, give all information that a sighted user would be able to access, without adding extraneous information. The colors of lines in a graph is irrelevant, for example – but the categories and values are important. (How would you verbally describe the image to a colleague over the phone?)
  3. Alt text should be written in a logical order – from high to low, largest to smallest change, most to least important. Depending on the figure, this may not necessarily be the order of the categories listed in the key.
  4. Keep in mind – If you are struggling to generate a useful and concise description for alt text, it may be a sign that the figure is too complex and should be simplified. If you can’t describe it, imagine how your audience might have difficulty understanding the figure, even if they are sighted!

Rad Resources:

  1. Tips on writing good alt text descriptions:
  2. Instruction for adding alt text in Word 2013/2016:
  3. Alt text is just a small part of creating an accessible document. Here is a checklist to create fully accessible electronic documents in MS Word 2010 –

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating the Disabilities and Other Vulnerable Populations TIG (DOVP) Week. The contributions all week come from DOVP members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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