Author’s notes: Long behind-the-scenes thoughts on a topic I debated while migrating content: alternative text for accessibility. (Coincidentally, it’s fitting that we’re meeting a gladiatorbot who has no sight!)
When I first started sharing Now Recharging, I wanted to be mindful of accessibility – the practice of making services, spaces, communications, etc., accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. Everyone’s needs are different, and technology keeps changing as well, so it’s not a black and white or static set of rules.
Since I already create a final script for dialogue, it made sense to repurpose it as alternative (alt) text – invisible descriptions that a screen reader reads out for someone can’t see the comic visuals. This is admittedly a basic and limited approach. My transcripts focus on speech, thoughts, and sometimes sound effects, but that doesn’t always fully describe the physical action happening. It’s a compromise because of my limited time/resources… but also a reminder and starting point to keep doing better as I go along.
In 2015, Now Recharging ran on tumblr, which didn’t (at the time) have a great solution for user-input alt text. I simply added the text in the post right below the comic image. When I moved to Smack Jeeves in 2018, the upload tools included alt text fields, so I used that. (During Smack Jeeves’ content migration to their new model, the field disappeared… but existing alt text was turned into Author’s Comments placed under the image.)
Now Recharging is currently on WordPress. My understanding of alt text and accessibility has also evolved since 2015. While alt text is meant to describe an image, it’s intended to be a brief description, around 125 characters. Which means long lines of dialogue are not really appropriate.
So, I could go back to putting the transcript below the image. But what about the alt text? I could:
- Literally describe what the file is – e.g., “Chapter 7 page 67” – but the entire page the comic is sitting on already says that in multiple places, so it’d be more redundant than helpful.
- Leave the alt text field blank (a “null” tag) so that the screen reader skips the image entirely and just reads the longer transcript below. Technically OK, but not great.
- Write a succinct high-level summary. For this page, assuming I already described both robots in more detail in the previous page(s) when they first appeared, maybe something like “A shocked Emmie converses with the giant headless robot.” This seems most helpful and makes content and context more accessible in conjunction with the transcripts.
As time permits, I hope to gradually update old pages to repopulate the transcripts and also write some better alt text.
For the transcript, I’ve settled on using caption (the figcaption tag). I think it’s extra helpful for the transcripts to be visible, since it’s not only useful for people using screen readers, but also searchable on-page if someone wants to use the dialogue to locate a part of the story. Looking back, I certainly used it a lot on tumblr to help me do just that!
Some additional reading I referenced, for those interested:
- WebAIM overview of general alt text best practices
- 2018 article: How to write alt text for digital comics
- 2019 article – Accessible Comics???
- 2019 article: Optimizing WordPress Image Fields: Title, Alt Text, Description, Huh?
- 2019 article on the Figcaption tag (used by WordPress’ caption field): Figure and figcaption – extended alternate text for screen readers?
♥ Maiji (December 16, 2019)