AXSChat Podcast

Breaking Down Barriers: The Power of Alt Text

November 23, 2023 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Caroline Desrosiers
AXSChat Podcast
Breaking Down Barriers: The Power of Alt Text
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Get ready to take a deep-dive into the oft-overlooked field of alt text and its innate role in content accessibility. Our guest for this enlightening conversation is Caroline Desrosiers, the brains behind Scribly, a trailblazing company that provides top-notch alt text writing services. Hear her riveting journey into the realm of accessibility and her motivation to create Scribly, which is helping numerous organizations perfect their content accessibility initiatives. 

The conversation doesn't stop at the importance of alt text. We also explore the many hurdles organizations face when integrating alt text across various platforms. Add to that the urgency for a more efficient workflow, and you have a pressing issue on your hands. We then shift gears to discuss how crucial it is to move with purpose in the fast-paced world of technology. It's a critical reminder that every new technology should be made accessible. Together, with Caroline's profound knowledge and Scribly's ingenious solutions, we hope to place the emphasis where it needs to be - on alt text and content accessibility. So, come along on this journey as we continue the dialogue for a more inclusive digital world for everyone.

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Axschat:

Caroline Desrosiers

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to this week's Axschat. I'm delighted that we are joined today by Caroline Desrosiers, who I had the pleasure of meeting at M Enabling, a few weeks ago, back in Washington DC. Caroline and I started talking about Alt text and the work that she is doing with Scribley. Those of us who have been in the accessibility field for longer than we care to mention, have been talking about Alt text for longer than we care to mention. Mainly because it's sometimes the only thing that people talk about when they are talking about accessibility. That and captions. So, I think it is really definitely an important topic, but Caroline is here because, she is taking the pain out of it. So, Caroline, you know, Scribley doesn't just do Alt text, it's content accessibility solutions. So, tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got started and the premise behind what you're now doing.

CAROLINE:

Sure, sure. Happy to be here. Thanks for having me on the Podcast. Yes, so, I started Scribley as a business to support Alt text, because, four and a half years ago, when I started my company, definitely still problems. There's a lot of bad Alt text out there on the web, still today. Even though as Neil said, it gets a lot of stage time, it comes up in conversations a lot. We talk a lot about Alt text, but organisations are still struggling to get it right. So, my company exists to provide those actual writing services to get Alt text done. But, we also do a fair amount of training and consulting as well, with companies, just to move accessibility forward, content accessibility solutions. So, not only images, but also videos and Podcasts. So we can also support transcription services as well as audio description script writing.

NEIL:

And, when I said take the pain out of the creation of Alt text, I was only half joking because, actually, whilst, as an accessibility person, I understand the absolute importance of describing images. As someone with dyslexia, that process of description puts me through my own accessibility pain barriers, sometimes, especially if I don't have access to speech recognition tools, which are becoming more ubiquitous, so, it's making it easier. But it's a great example of how, you know, different parts of the community have different needs and that actually, we sometimes need to rely on services to be universally accessible. How did you get into the field in the first place?

CAROLINE:

Yes. So, before starting Scribley, I worked in digital publishing and that's where I first joined an accessibility working group and discovered that image descriptions were quite a challenge, in publishing. And, I was interested in starting a business that could help solve a problem. I just didn't know what, at that time. But I was just fascinated by accessibility and also, frustrated by the problem. I come from a family of educators and it just kind of broke my brain, when I found, when I heard that image descriptions were not making it into e books for the most part and that the quality was really suffering and I thought, well this is an area that I could support because I love writing. I love working with writers. And I want to help solve this problem. So, that was originally kind of how the idea came into my mind, to start an image description business. And you know, thought well this sounds simple. Just assemble a team of human writers that know what they are doing, develop a process for this work and just work with organisations that want to get it done, that sounds pretty easy. Of course, it's not. But that original vision is still there. We very much prioritise quality above everything else and we have a team of folks who just love to write and are passionate about communicating the content of images. So, yes.

DEBRA:

Caroline, welcome to the programme. I have been watching what you're doing a little bit. So, I first of all, I thought it was funny, excuse me that you started in January 2020. So, I just want to say wow, okay, good for you. That was cheeky to do that. But then, of course, around that time, besides that whole pandemic thing we did. Of course, AI is changing everything and then AI came out and I am in love with AI. I know it's going to kill us all. But I still love what it's doing personally to my own work. And so, but at the same time, it has added a whole bunch more confusion to the marketplace. I know that I was doing a little training yesterday and people were asking about the specific topic. Oh, oh, the good news about Alt text, we got that one solved. All you need to do is just go to AI and AI will do the Alt text description for you. But of course, that is not true, because you know the Alt text must be meaningful to the image and only the designer, the developer, the content provider knows why you're using that image. But, at the same time, AI is going to simplify things for us with accessibility. And, I just am proud of you that you started this business when you did and I applaud it. But at the same time, wow, what a hard time to start a business, when we actually, we saw when AI really, you know, Chat GBT, really started getting used that companies immediately started laying off their content writers and their social media people. And we saw disability writers that had been known to write disability, all of sudden, well, they are not needed because AI can just do it. Now, of course, we know AI is still learning. I, first of all want to applaud what you're doing, especially as women entrepreneurs but it's also a really intense time that you came in. But I also believe, there is a real opportunity for you. Because once again, we can toss it all to AI to say, figure it out. We, of course as humans, still need to be involved. So, I just thought I would throw those really complicated questions at you as you did this during these intense times. But thank you at the same time.

CAROLINE:

Yes, you have brought tup a few points. Alt text has been a struggle to get right, because you not only have the problem of actually writing the content, but also managing that within workflows. And that is where it breaks down, so after the last four and a half years of being in this business, I have talked to a lot of organisations and sometimes it's not the content writing part of it. Sometimes, it's actually the workflow side of things, where their systems don't support Alt text and it's very difficult to manage and store that information within the systems and then it's just a challenge all around. So, I think there are opportunities with AI, to help finally scale this operation of writing image descriptions and of course, there is so many images on the web. But as you said, it's absolutely important because we are talking about accessibility that these image descriptions are right. People need to be able to trust in this information and the authors of that content that are putting it out on the web, need to ensure that it is correct and that it is the same level of quality as all of the other content that exists on that web page and in that digital document. That's the, you know, the original reason I started Scribley, was I was talking about just you know that frustration that information should be accurate and true and you should be able to depend on it. That still exists today. I don't want to see any sort of quality suffer as a result of using AI. So, I think humans still need to be in the loop and need to be owning this process and using AI potentially to help scale their operations but not completely replacing humans in this work. So, Scribley is actually getting involved in collecting research data and you know, testing the generative AI results as Alt text experts, which felt like something we really needed to do. So, we are currently doing a study on the quality of generative AI descriptions and how that compares to human moderated generated AI descriptions and just human descriptions in general. So, that is very important research that we need to do right now, to make sure that we are hitting the mark with what Alt text needs to be.

DEBRA:

And I do want to just, I know that Antonio is going to come in here, so I am not going to talk long. But I just think it's so important to have the quality. Because what we have done is and so, the audience say, might say, oh yeah, nice to have. It isn't nice to have. We need quality descriptions that really are meaningful, otherwise by us just putting out there, not image, but anything, careless image Alt text. The reality is you do leave humans out when you're doing that. So, I just hope is that people are understanding the importance of this conversation. Because, we have to stop checking the easy box and say, okay did it. Yes, there is something on there but it doesn't make any sense to me. And so, I just want to validate that. But at the same time, I worry Caroline, how you are you all going to be funded to do this work that needs to be done. I hope any investors or funders are listening in that this is the kind of really good content that we need real good content, that's meaningful. But I think it's wrong to keep asking us to do all this work for free. Just saying. So, Antonio, let me turn it over to you.

ANTONIO:

To bring another topic that today when we navigate on the web, we can easily translate content and we can go, it becomes readable is not perfect but someone that might not be an English speaking, can have a good understanding about what that is about. How do you think we should move English into Alt text because many images of the web, English, is the dominant language. How can a Spanish person, how can someone that is not native of a certain language, can somehow experience Alt text that is originally in English, in their own language?

CAROLINE:

That's such an interesting question to solve. I am currently looking into well how we can start publishing Alt text, in more than one language. I'm looking at the European, the EU directive for accessibility coming out in 2025, where people need to, organisations need to ensure that their websites are accessible. And all these different versions that we have. We have an English version, a French version, and a German version. On each one of those websites, we need to have Alt text in that language so that it actually matches the rest of the content. So, I think translation is going to be a challenge because it's a challenge enough to get Alt text, into the Alt attribute in English and now, we are talking about these other languages. But really to create a great experience, we need humans in the loop involved in that translation operation, that service. That's absolutely something I'm thinking about and that is critical to solve in the next few years, yes.

NEIL:

So, that's a yes. It really is a challenge made more difficult, I think by providing that through translations rather than individual, you know, web pages with a language attribute set for each of the different languages. So, but frequently, you know, whilst it's possible to translate the text easily, that gets, you know, the image descriptions that get left behind. And we see similar with captions too. Captions are slightly more obvious because you know, they are visible and so therefore people recognise that there is a language difference and maybe a need to do it. But I think that you know, it's quite easy for people to forget when they are translating pages. Leads me on to another point that we discussed when we were talking in person a few weeks back which is about the persistence of image descriptions, because you know, quite frequently, I find myself writing image descriptions and then having to store them in notes and so on and so forth because, the image description doesn't stay with the image, you know. So, if you are using an image, multiple times, it's not embedded in the image file. Therefore, you're having to apply that as an extra layer and I would love to see that information, you know, as digital standards change because you know the Jpeg has been around for a long time the GIF has been around for years as well, and as these sort of the image standards change, it would be good to embed the accessibility data and the image description directly into the image, so that you're not constantly having to reapply or rewrite the image descriptions. Even when we are using the same image in slides. I think Microsoft have actually improved this now. But I used to have a real bug bear where you would copy and paste slides because you were doing presentations because you had done the image description and then you go back and suddenly find the slides are not accessible because they were missing the image descriptions because you passed without formatting and it took it all out. So, do you foresee a time, when it's going to be possible to you know, have that meta data embedded in the images so that you know, once you have done the work once, you are not having to redo it because I mean there are billions of images on the web all right? And there is only a few of you that are doing this professionally and we know that AI hasn't really got there quite yet. So, how can we stop the rework?

CAROLINE:

Absolutely. Thank you for bringing this up. It's actually already possible. So, about two years ago now, I joined an organisation called the International Press Telecommunications Council and they manage the standards for meta data that you can embed in image files. So, photo meta data and I joined because they didn't have Alt texts and extended description as meta date properties within their standard and I said well, this should really be information that we can embed in images. So, I joined the and we submitted proposal and within a few months that the Alt text extended description properties were added to the meta data standard. So, we can actually embed Alt text and extended descriptions, into an image files and transport those descriptions with the actual image file, between systems. So, that's part of the standard now and, just needs to be rerecorded by the different programmes that are used. So, that if we take, if we have embedded photo meta data. We drop that image into a document or upload it to social media that that Alt text is imported into the system and populating Alt text. So, what you have hit on here, Neil, is this need to preserve the Alt text that has been written. So, we are not duplicating efforts and writing Alt text over and over again. Because that experience is frustrating, where even if we have the motivation and the goal, to write Alt text and we do it. How do we save it, how do we get it from that social media post, where I definitely brought Alt text over here to this system, where I need it again. And that is where Alt text is breaking down. That's where we are seeing challenges with workflows and where we can put a lot of efforts forward to improving the systems that support Alt text. That's an area I'm really passionate about because that feels like an easy one. If we have humans writing Alt text, then we can repurpose that if we can just get organised around the systems that support Alt text.

NEIL:

Yes. And that was it the IPTC, was that, yes?

CAROLINE:

Right, International Press Telecommunication Council. And also, we talked about language. There is a way to store Alt text in multiple languages, in photo meta data, so, that's already supported and that's something we can use to support and manage Alt text in multiple languages. This is something that I hope more systems and platform providers are paying attention to and supporting because this would really help users and content authors, across the board.

NEIL:

Absolutely. I had the will to do it once. I don't have the spoons to do it multiple times. And I think that okay, the standards are there. But, you know, it's then the adoption of the standards and the integration into the everyday systems because that's when it's going to really come and work. And thank you for putting in the groundwork on doing this because, it really is super important as an enabler.

CAROLINE:

Absolutely. Yes. And not to mention, we can also preserve the image description from the original creator of that image. Or from the image source provider we are sourcing that image from. Let's say you’re licensing an image from Getty and you can get access to the Alt text that was written by Getty or written by the original photographer. How fantastic would that be. That is, you know, when we talk about the scalability of Alt text, that's some scalability I can get behind because we are human scaling it. We are just passing and preserving human written Alt text, which is great quality and from the original authors that care about that image and want to make sure that that information is correct.

NEIL:

Absolutely. And Antonio, did you have a question?

ANTONIO:

No. You were talking about bringing that meta data to social networks and you say that today, when we want to write and therefore implement Alt text on LinkedIn on Instagram or on Twitter, all systems do it in different ways. How do you see that being what you are saying, being compatible with social networks, to facilitate the life of editors, of you know, people working for companies or agencies, we have to do that work you know, systematically.

CAROLINE:

Right. So, there are a lot of systems operating behind social media platforms. A lot of people use social media scheduling services. There are many popular ones out there and that's an obvious place where you could import Alt text into a social media scheduling service, where you're publishing to multiple platforms. So, it's connecting the dots, right? Does that social media scheduling service you use support image meta data or can they help you with you know, managing your Alt text in that system and then, do they have the integrations in place to send that Alt text to all the social media platforms. So, that's what I'm talking about in terms of work flows how we can really dial it in and connect the dots her and help people improve the Alt text. So, they don't actually have to remember to manually add it every single time. That's the problem right there is the requirement to manually add Alt text and to ask users to jump through multiple clicks and go into advanced settings and add Alt text. That's not what we would expect.

ANTONIO:

We are also talking about those providers allow you to schedule. I would say that looking at all of them, they were really late adopter of Alt text. It took them years after the APIs in the systems allow it. Some of them were very popular, are only doing for less than a year. So, are you confident that now they will do it or going to have another five years for them to do this right?

CAROLINE:

Right. This is where advocacy really comes in and what I came up against when we added the Alt text and meta data properties to within the standard, I thought that within a year we are going to see widespread adoption, across platforms and programmes, that are looking for solutions and I was surprised that that just didn't happen. That it's out there. It's available. We can use this and you're not doing anything about it. And there is this challenge coming up against well we are not hearing this, from our users. We are like this is just what you want. And we need to hear from our users. And then in some cases, pointing directly to, public forums where yes, you're using this from your users four years ago. How are you not doing it? That's not an excuse. But it's that classic kind of well what our internal priorities here? And this keeps getting knocked down. It's always later with Alt text and it's surprising and it's such a basic accessibility requirement that we should have dialled in at this point. And you know, it's not just people not writing Alt text, it's the systems they are using not supporting it.

NEIL:

Yes, agree. And that's a couple of points, I want to pick up on there, from a corporate point of view, we choose our platform for you know, social advocacy because it did support Alt text. It was one of the key requirements as choosing it as a group. Not, as an accessibility team. But as a large billion multi-billion-dollar euro enterprise, we choose it because it supported Alt text and other accessibility features. But the workflow is still a challenge because you know, you still got to get humans to do it. But the thing that we have now got going on, is that we are now actually getting reporting metrics from that platform. As to the proportion of the poster that created that have Alt text. So, we are then able to have measurements and track progress and nudge people along and so on and so forth. I think with the persistent meta data, if they were then to support the standards that would be really helpful. And I wonder whether there is also a tag that might need to be added to say verified, written by human or you know, checked by human as meaningful. There would be also to be embedded because then again you have you're building in a layer of trust into a system that the thing is meaningful and you can automate and you can remove some of the additional manual work and rework. So, but I think that to come to the second point you raised. We have been working with resistance to the things that we want that no one else has ever mentioned for a long time. This is not uncommon. We see this with accessibility, feature requests across all sorts of major platforms and sometimes, we end up having to sort of crowd, you know get the accessibility to community, to share with each other, feature requests and go on vote on them because, it's that kind of stuff that then starts to move it up the priority ladder. Yes, we put them in. You get told, yes, put as a feature request. And then of course, someone that basically wants dark mode. As opposed to something slightly more complex. Everyone goes, yes I want dark mode so there are 3000 votes, and someone that wants image descriptions you may be got 10 votes. Does it make it less important? No. But the prioritisation process is skewed in certain ways. So, we do, there is that advocacy part that we still need to do to make industry adopt this stuff and see it as more of a priority which I think is ongoing work.

ANTONIO:

But there is sometimes a simple reason why they don't say they are not listening for their users because their users don't use their systems because they are not accessible. You'll never hear from those users, because you don't have them. That's the reason why.

NEIL:

Yes, yes. Yes. You don't have any users because they are excluded. Yes. Okay. Debra, sorry I interrupted and Caroline, I'm sure you may have some points.

DEBRA:

Well, I just would like to say to Caroline, I really appreciate the work that you're doing. Being in the field a long time and seeing how money flows. It worries me about all this amazing work you're doing. And I'm hoping that some corporate brands are going to step up and support this kind of work. Because, I think there is a lot that needs to be done at the base that we are doing that. I see brands doing a lot of things. But I would like to see them do more things that are actually helping our community. So, I think this right here is a perfect opportunity for funders to see what we need and what we need funded because so much of the funding I see coming in, from funders, from investors and stuff. Once again, appear to be trying to make one accessibility company more successful than another and forgetting the point of, we are actually working on something here to make sure all humans are meaningfully included. So, I'm looking forward to a lot of people becoming more enlightened about what we are doing here. But what do you see, Caroline, you know, if you could wave a magic wand and the world work the way you think it should work. I think there are people listening now. There are, we appreciate the brands and like ATOS, that has made these things, trying to blend them really into the DNA. They are not the only ones. We have other groups that have tried. I do a shout out to Siemen's. SAP, there is a lot of, there is not a lot but there are some brands that are trying to do the right thing. But, I still feel that most of the efforts are really check the box and not meaningful. I mean like, I don't care what you put out there as an Alt text, and don't say image 1, don't say graphic 1, either. So, understanding the true needs, the true needs of our community is something that corporations still need to do a lot of work on and so do funders. But I was just, you know only because I don't want you, Caroline to have to walk some of the path, I've had to walk and others, where our work is not funded but we are expected to work anyway because we care about this community being meaningfully included. But what would the world look like if we started really getting that people wanted to be meaningful included not just your little check box inclusion?

CAROLINE:

Yes, if I could wave a magic wand, then organisations would hold themselves accountable to the Alt text that they are publishing, just like any other content they are publishing. It's part of that process. It needs to be integrated into that process; it needs to be integrated into that process. Content when we publish it needs to be born accessible, from the beginning. And just because something can't be done fast, doesn't mean it should not be done, right? This is an important part of accessibility of publishing content on the web and it we need to figure out these challenges. If it's writing the content, let's solve that. If it's the workflows, we can solve that too. It's just not an excuse anymore to me and we need to be we need to be reaching for a higher standard at the organisational level.

DEBRA:

Even Neil was clapping during that. Usually, I'm over here doing all of this. But well said Caroline. Well said. Over to you, Neil.

NEIL:

Thank you and I fully agree. Not everything can be done in a hurry. We are very much in a one of those points in history, where everything seems to be in a hurry again because there is a new technology and everybody is tremendously excited and competing and I think we are back, around the circle again where we are moving fast are breaking things and I'm concerned about that. I think that sometimes we need to move purposeful and fix stuff and as you say, make sure it born accessible. So, thank you so much for joining us today, spending the time, sharing your knowledge and the work that you're doing, which I think is fantastic. And also, thank you to our sponsors, Amazon and My Cleartext for keeping us online and keeping us captioned and accessible. So, thank you Caroline and I really look forward to you joining us on Twitter for continuing the discussion.

CAROLINE:

Thank you all. Thanks for having me.

Alt Text and Content Accessibility Importance
Alt Text Implementation Challenges and Solutions
The Importance of Moving Purposefully