So, Like, What’s The Big Deal With Transcripts and Stuff, Anyway?

Captions, transcripts, and image descriptions for websites are often framed as being about folks who are d/Deaf, hard of hearing, or blind.

It’s about a lot more than that.

The Internet has some major accessibility problems, and one of the most glaring ones is the lack of descriptions for visual content and transcripts for audio content. In recent months, there’s been much more of a push outside spaces specifically dedicated to disability to increase captioning and transcripts, and to encourage people to actually use the alt tag. This is very exciting for me to see, but I’m also seeing a lot of pushback; ‘why do we have to go through all this work for those people?’

Well, I’m one of those people and I’m one of the people running websites that provide captions, image descriptions, and transcripts, so let me lay it out for you.

There are a lot of reasons why people might need content described or transcribed. For example, some people still use text-only browsers, are on slow connections, have bandwidth caps, or are in areas with content restrictions. That totally sweet BBC video you posted last week? Yeah, only people in the UK could see that. Technical barriers to access are barriers nonetheless, and for sites that want to expand their readerships, a nod to users who don’t have the luxury of high speed or residency in a particular country will be appreciated.

Furthermore, some people read the Internet at work. I know, tsk tsk. But those people don’t want to alert the entire office to the fact that they’re reading this awesome feminist blog posting videos about neatarific feminist things. If they don’t have headphones, or can’t watch video at all without being obvious about it, they are stuck looking woefully at the play button and trying to remember to check it out at home. But lo! If there is a transcript and description, they can play along! It’s so exciting.

In terms of disability, there are a lot of issues beyond being d/Deaf or hard of hearing, or being blind, that can make it difficult to engage with multimedia content. Some videos are shaky or have flashy things. That doesn’t work out too well for people with some cognitive and neurological disabilities. Other people have difficulty focusing on such content, or processing content presented in visual or audio form (hi, that’s me!). For some of us, transcripts and descriptions make the difference between ‘oh, I will totally add this site to my feed reader’ and ‘close tab.’

This is not just about accessibility for people with disabilities. If you are running a website and you want it to be user friendly, to attract readers, to gain a readership, including site features that will increase engagement is a wise move. Readability and ability to engage with the content are needs for all browsers, not just people with disabilities. For people trying to monetise sites, it’s just plain good business to build a site that as many people as possible will be able to access and fully interact with.

People frame this as a burden or service, but it’s not. It’s adding value to a site. And yes, it is work, but that’s precisely why it adds value.

For me personally, if I want to put up content that needs to be transcribed or described to be accessible, I won’t put it up if I don’t have time to do it and can’t find a transcript someone else has done that I can use. It’s just not worth it to me, and I wish that other people felt the same way. Is that video I want to post that important, or can it wait a few hours?

One of the things that’s been really exciting to me is that as the push to use transcripts and image descriptions has developed, networks of volunteers to handle transcription and image description have arisen. More and more sites are posting transcripts with video content, often very good ones, and every time I’ve emailed to say ‘hey, can I use your transcript, with credit’ the response has been ‘sure thing!’ This is a good thing, because there’s no reason for people to be doing the same work twice, and it makes it easier for people to get accessible content up; I’ve used such services a couple of times myself.

Keep in mind that transcripts and image descriptions do not need to be perfect. Here’s a picture of my adorable cat, Loki:

Loki, a white cat with black splotches, under a purple rug. He's sticking one paw and his head out, and is staring intently to the right of the frame.

The alt text for the image reads: ‘Loki, a white cat with black splotches, under a purple rug. He’s sticking one paw and his head out, and is staring intently to the right of the frame.’ That’s pretty detailed. I’m trying to explain what it is about the image that I think is important and relevant. But even if I just said ‘Loki the cat under a rug’ or ‘Loki the cat’ or ‘a cat under a rug,’ it would provide some sort of context for the image.

Likewise, for something like a video, ‘a Lady Gaga music video for ‘Telephone” is better than nothing. That at least tells users what is going on, even if it’s not very descriptive or helpful. Something is better than nothing. When preparing transcripts and image descriptions, I ask myself what it is about this content that I think is important, and try to convey that. I ask myself ‘if I was describing this to someone in a conversation, or in chat with someone who can’t access it for some reason, what would I want to highlight? What would I want someone to take away from this?’

The thing about website accessibility is that the onus is often put on the people who need accommodations, instead of the people creating the site. That very word, ‘accommodations,’ makes it sound like one is the recipient of a huge favour; ‘we’re accommodating you.’ We need to break out of this mindset.

Imagine, if you will, says the person who hates disability simulations, that you wake up tomorrow and find that the mode of communication used by most people is one you do not understand. That every time you try to enter a building, a door slams shut in your face. That every newspaper or book you pick up, you can’t read. You know it’s there. You know something is happening. But you might as well be looking at a blank sheet of paper.

That’s what being on the Internet feels like, sometimes. So much for free access to information.

Fundamentally, what the accessibility issue boils down to is this:

If you don’t commit to fully providing image descriptions and transcripts, you’re telling a segment of your potential readership that you don’t care about them, and aren’t interested in attracting or retaining them.

That’s bad business, and it’s also bad social justice.

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