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One of the things I'm interested in is web accessibility, particularly for knowledge bases such as Stack Exchange. One part of this is alt text for images - a text alternative for images, which is used by screen readers, search engines, and when the image can't be displayed for whatever reason.

Some of the guidelines I've learned about alt text are that it should be "short and succinct", but at the same time, make sure that all of the information presented in the image is present in the alt text.

Generally, these guidelines don't tend to conflict; most images don't need super long descriptions to make sure that the text is serving the same purpose as the image. There is one major thing that's been a source of conflict between those guidelines, though: comic panels.

Over at Science Fiction & Fantasy, a lot of posts contain images of comic panels or pages. These tend to contain a lot of information packed into a small amount of space; there are the characters present in the scene, what they're doing, what they're saying, any other text boxes in the panel... it ends up being a lot of text to transcribe.

Here's an example that I'm struggling with, from a post about Luke Cage:

A comic with seven distinct panels, several different characters, and 22 speech bubbles

I'm not sure that it's worth transcribing all of the text; a screen reader would read all of that out at once without any way to go back to a different panel, for instance. However, if the text isn't transcribed, then that's information present in the image that's not available to people who can't see the image. It also means that people searching for the text from that image won't necessarily find it, interfering with the SEO aspect of alt text.

Posts can contain several images like these - the post which I took that image from has 14 image links, all to comic panels like that one.

What's the best approach for handling these, alt-text wise?

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  • Realistically, using alt text for this purpose is impractical. Although possible, it would result in a very confusing implementation. The solutions proposed by Ypsy and Izquierdo are likely your best options, although they do not utilize alt text. I'm not sure if there's an standard convention for comics, but for accessibility in this context, providing a brief audio file that includes the characters' dialogues and describes the scene might be the most effective solution.
    – Devin
    Dec 19, 2023 at 14:38

2 Answers 2

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Thank you for making your comics accessible, and for caring about how users with vision impediments might engage with them.

I would suggest, if you are really inclined to make these accessible, to create transcripts. You could make a simple HTML page called "Transcript" for each comic and place the link under the image.

Transcripts are considered an acceptable accessibility alternative in video media where captioning isn't practical. I think this could translate well to comics. Ypsi's answer touches on how screenreaders would read it like a script, so if you start your comics with scripts, you'd just need to add a few more details for each scene to come to life.

There are other benefits for transcripts:

  • Plaintext shows up in search engines, so if a reader can't remember which comic a scene was in, they could Google the details, and Google would likely make a decent match
  • Sometimes comics are difficult to understand - not necessarily the fault of the artist, it might be that the reader comes from a cultural or other context (perhaps a young age) where they don't immediately grasp what is going on. A transcript could help them find a written description, which could be translated easily.

More info on transcripts at w3.org.

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    While transcripts are typically used for audio and video content, I believe they are an excellent idea for this specific use case. However, they would likely require descriptions of the visual scenes in many instances. A good example would be theatrical plays or movie scripts, where the scene is explained and then come the actors' parts.
    – Devin
    Dec 19, 2023 at 14:28
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    This is a good suggestion. It's easy to get too focussed on the individual elements when it comes to accessibility ("how do I make this particular component accessible") but sometimes it's worth stepping back and remembering the wider aim - to make the content as a whole accessible to everyone. Alt text for this comic can just be "screenshot of page 1 of the comic, a link to the transcript is provided on the page" which would give overall context to the image without going overboard with full details in the alt-text itself.
    – JonW
    Dec 19, 2023 at 15:55
  • Thanks for the suggestions. However, please note the context mentioned in the question - I'm specifically asking about cases such as SE posts where I can't embed other types of files; I'm limited to images and text (and alt text). Maintaining an external resource to contain the transcripts fails the "Robust" requirement, as I can't guarantee that it'll exist as long as the post containing the image. Do you have any suggestions on how to adapt this answer for that specific use case?
    – Mithical
    Dec 19, 2023 at 21:21
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First and foremost I think the context is key. On the page you have set as an example the text explains the content of the images, and the comic strips attached seem to be displayed only as proof of what is explained. As such just summarizing the content might be enough. Using the example you gave: "A comic page with Luke Cage soaking in hazardous chemicals" (?? sorry, I'm not sure what's going on in the comic :P).

Now, as an experimental concept, if you would like to give people using screen readers access to comics, then I would recommend considering existing cases, for example, how people with visual disabilities watch films:

  • Each character (speech bubbles) and the voice-off (boxes) have different voices: in the comic, you won't have this benefit so adding the name of who's speaking will be probably needed.
  • The action happening on screen, is usually covered by audio description, which should be written down too. In conclusion, the alternative content to make the comic available for screen readers would read pretty much like a script. But as it'll be read by screen readers one must consider if the experience will be engaging enough to capture the user's attention, as they won't have sound effects, different voices, tones, speaking inflexions, etc. Also, I wonder if image alt attributes will be the best approach for this level of complexity.

I hope this helps

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