AI Is Terrible at Writing Alt Text

Human written alt texts increases accessibility — and profits

Thomas Smith


Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), a time to celebrate and explore the many ways users and publishers can make the Internet more accessible to people with disabilities.

Image alt text is a key element of web accessibility. About 7 million people in the United States have a visual disability, which can make it challenging to navigate an Internet that has become increasingly driven by graphics and videos. Many of these users access websites via screen readers, special software programs which transform webpages into audio, allowing visually impaired users to navigate and interact with them.

Screen reader technology has improved dramatically as the Internet has matured, and many modern web standards increase usability dramatically for visually impaired website visitors. But in many cases, screen readers still have a literal blind spot: images.

Many companies have turned to Artificial Intelligence in order to automatically add alt text to images. That sounds like a good idea, but in practice, it rarely works well.

Making images accessible is a major challenge, but an incredibly important one for photographers, image licensors, publishers, and web developers alike. The main technology for increasing images’ accessibility is alt text. Alt text is written text which can be attached to an image online, and often describes the visual contents of the image. It can be embedded into the metadata of the image itself, embedded into the webpage in which the image is displayed, or both.

When screen reader software finds an image that has alt text, it can read the alt text aloud, which gives the user a sense of what the image depicts, even if they can’t see its visual content. Most web platforms allow designers to add alt text to their images, and social media platforms increasingly support alt text, too.

Alt text is a good solution from a technical perspective. But in practice, alt text has to be well-written in order to be informative and useful. Writing alt text well is more challenging than you…