What If a Student Can't See My Helpful Visuals?

By Laura Jervis
đź“… July 11, 2022
đź•‘ Read time: 8 minute(s)
What If a Student Can't See My Helpful Visuals?

Think about a course you teach, and focus in on a specific lesson. What—other than text—do your students see? Maybe there are pictures of a person or place you’re talking about; you might use graphics to explain a complex cycle or process; or perhaps the visuals are the lesson, such as when you’re asking students to analyze trends from a graph. All of these are helpful to include in a lecture, but what happens when one of your students can’t see them?

Describe Images Verbally

The most basic answer is to fully describe visuals in lectures or videos. If you give a quick description of what a visual is before discussing the significance of it, you are providing an alternative format for students who can’t see it, and you might also be helping students who can see it by highlighting what’s important and giving them time to think.

Add Meaningful, yet Concise Alternative Text

In addition to verbal descriptions, you can include alternative text, which is metadata that describes images, in digitally distributed materials. Alternative text will be read to visually impaired students who use screen reading software, so it’s important to describe what you see in neutral terms while including anything that’s important in the context of the lesson. Too much alternative text can slow someone down, so keep it short, about the length of a Tweet.

Organize Complex Visuals into Chunks

If you have a complex visualization, consider breaking it into several images at natural pause points in the content. You can place the images next to each other so that it still looks like a cohesive graphic, and then the alternative text can be more complete. If you do this, it’s essential to set a reading order so a screen reader presents the information accurately.

Make Connections in Data Visualizations Descriptions

If you use data visualizations, these can be challenging to describe. I like to start by defining the x and y axis, stating their range, and then explaining the shape of the graph while noting outliers. This still leaves room for the student to tell you what the data actually means. If you have a student who uses a screen reader, you may also want to ask them if they would like you to format your data for a tool like SAS Graphics Accelerator, which adds sonification to graphs. Statistics has never sounded so pretty!

By providing consistent descriptions of visuals during your class and quality alternative text on digital materials, you are taking a big step toward a course that is equitable for students who are blind or visually impaired, including those with a temporary or situational impairment. If you want more guidance on writing quality image descriptions or on the technical considerations for including them, use our Request Assistance form to ask for an accessibility consultation.

Image credit: Adobe Stock

TagsAccessibility, Course Design, Diversity, EngagementInclusivityOnline Teaching, Student Success