Communicating politics, accessibly

Yesterday both Presidents Biden and Obama tweeted out statements on Twitter. They wanted to communicate their concerns about the leak from the Supreme Court about Roe Versus Wade. Both tweets were sent without AltText. This is problem for communicating politics, accessibly.

What is AltText?

AltText is short for Alternative Text. By adding AltText to an image, the software used by a blind or visually impaired user can read out an image description or what the text embedded in an image means. Without AltText, the image is a blank space. Unreadable, unknowable. The two images of the statements above have no AltText. They are political speech made without meaning.

Adding AltText to Twitter

When an image is added to a Tweet, the option to add AltText is offered. Up to 1000 characters can be added per image. The following image is about 998 characters long. I tweeted it earlier to test it.

Twitter allows 1000 characters but Medium only allows 500 so I cannot put all the image test here. I’ve added it after the image.

One problem with communicating content across platforms is they have different standards. Medium only allows 500 characters so I am adding the image text here:

Using images of letters or documents to communicate on Twitter

Organisations and politicians like to publish letters or documents on Twitter, Visually, this is powerful, but it creates accessibility problems.

Primarily for blind and visually impaired people who cannot read the text in the image. Secondarily for people with cognitive impairments who find such huge blocks of text hard to read and comprehend.

AltText

Using the AltText feature of Twitter is a solution for the first problem. When creating the Tweet, simply copy and paste the text into the AltText box offered and it becomes available to users of screen-reading software. There is a 1000 character limit to the AltText box. You create a thread of tweets to fully communicate a letter-style image.

Chunking

Breaking the letter into such blocks, however, can mitigate the secondary problem. Instead of one huge block of text, the statement is broken into smaller chunks. This helps everyone.

@acuity_design 2022

Image: 999 characters

I used this image and text block to show how much content can be fitted under 1000 characters on Twitter. Being able to plan chunk sizes is important at the start of the process of writing a statement.

Chunking

That there is this specific problem in adding AltText is useful example of why Chunking matters in the design of content.

As I noted above, there is a secondary problem with long text statements. They are huge blocks of text that can be too complicated to read and understand. The limitations of AltText boxes offer a useful constraint on how much text is shared in each image block. Rather than sharing a huge two-page letter of dense text, share a thread of clearly titled blocks of text.

AltText helps make political statements more perceivable.

Chunking helps makes political statements more comprehensible.

Designing political content accessibly

Both of the Presidential statements used an old-style of professional political communication. Both had that sense of the greater importance of letters that are typed out and distributed to the people.

Neither of them was accessible to all citizens (and there are many other reasons why than the ones I describe here).

However, there are three key points.

  1. Think about accessibility thru the whole process of communication. Adding it on at the end may mitigate problems but they do not solve them
  2. Use multiple formats offered by digital (text, audio, video) to communicate in the ways that citizens are comfortable with. Do not simply use the formats that politics has been historically comfortable with.
  3. Design content in chunks from the start. Blocks of arguments and facts that can be shared easily and comprehensibly across platforms and formats.

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Alastair Somerville

Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX