The Describing Visual Resources Toolkit aims to advance efforts towards accessible digital publishing in the arts and humanities by supporting the description of visual resources for accessibility.

Need for Accessible Publications and Quality Description

Accessibility is at once a legal requirement and an ethical responsibility. Legally, learning materials used in higher education must permit all students to enjoy educational benefits in an equally effective and integrated manner. While Student Services Offices have historically provided accommodations for students with disabilities that affect reading (visual impairments, motor impairments, and learning disabilities), the shift to digital learning materials has created the possibility and the demand for born-accessible content, a requirement upheld by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.1

Scholarly description of visual content enables access for readers with visual impairments and other print disabilities, thereby making digital publications classroom ready and available to previously underserved populations and markets. In the United States, this may include the approximately 8 million people who are blind or have difficulty seeing print with corrective lenses,2 the 36% of people over 65 who experience severe disability,3 and the rising number of post-secondary students with disabilities,4 many of whom may not have access to specialty and disability services. Making scholarship more accessible is furthermore in keeping with the spirit of the digital arts and humanities and of public arts and education.

Textual description also makes visual resources more discoverable and sustainable in the text-heavy online ecosystem. Description improves discoverability by translating visual information into the searchable format of text. Text content may be factored into search algorithms and results. Accurate, meaningful, and scholarly description additionally improves the quality and value of digital objects. In the longer term, robust textual description prepares digital visual resources for potential shifts in technology. As assistive features such as text-to-speech output become more mainstream, best practices for quality description of visual resources become fundamental to the workflows of digital scholarship and publishing.

Reading with Assistive Technology

People with disabilities that affect reading, especially blindness and low vision, have in recent history gained access to print through technologies including tactile type (Braille and other systems) and audio (talking books on various recording media).5 Books in these specialized formats have been produced through publishing and conversion processes apart from traditional print publishing streams, resulting in a relatively limited selection of titles available in accessible form. Today, electronic books coded according to standards may be published once in a format accessible for all.6 Digital content in HTML or EPUB formats can be presented in visual form, transformed into speech, or converted to tactile type by a combination of computer software and reading technology.

Modern assistive technology for the blind—in particular screen readers and refreshable Braille displays—give users independent and flexible access to digital publications, with the ability to read, navigate, and search. Like other reading technologies, these assistive technologies parse the text and markup of a digital file to create a reading experience. One major difference between visual and non-visual (assistive) reading technology is that visual technology translates markup into visual information (e.g., a heading is presented in bolder, larger font), while assistive technology translates markup into textual information (e.g., a heading is announced as “heading”). Assistive reading technologies also relay markup that is largely ignored by visual browsers, including embedded description of visual resources. Rather than render an image file as an image, assistive technology reads description provided in the markup. When no description is provided in the markup, or in the surrounding text, users of assistive technology have no access to visual resources. (For further information, see the Glossary.)

Given the operation of reading technology, quality description of visual resources is a crucial component of accessible publications and an urgent issue in the movement for equitable access to publications for blind and partially sighted readers.7 In the longer term, description is a key component of digital publications with the potential to benefit all readers. The history of technology shows that what begins as “assistive” often becomes mainstream. The reflowable and resizable text that many readers expect, the audiobooks that many readers enjoy: these are only a few examples of now mainstream accessibility technologies. Quality, scholarly, and effective descriptions of visual resources in today’s publications will better serve all readers tomorrow.

Descriptive Practices

Descriptive standards for visual images are well developed in several independent fields. (See Existing resources to support description.) However, the description of visual resources for accessibility in arts and humanities publications is a field still in development. The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) has established Accessibility Standards that call for detailed description of images but do not offer guidance in their preparation.8 Publishing guidelines have arisen to fill this gap, but thus far focus specifically on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) content. The Image Description Guidelines (DIAGRAM Center, Benetech) and Effective Practices for Description of Science Content within Digital Talking Books (National Center for Accessible Media) both offer best practices and sample descriptions for accessible STEM content in educational publications.9

In the arts and humanities, individual authors, editors, publishers, and arts organizations have begun to develop and implement practices for descriptions. Examples include the online journal Disability Studies Quarterly, new titles in the University of Michigan Press Corporealities: Discourses of Disability Book Series, and several individual titles. This early descriptive work builds on the practice of writing “alt text” for images in web content and on accessibility practices developed within disability studies. Now, as the community of practice around description for accessibility grows, best practices continue to develop. This toolkit is designed to invite more authors, editors, publishers, and arts organizations into this community of practice and to support their efforts.

Workshop and Toolkit

In December 2016 at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, a group of experts from academic and museum publishing, art history and visual studies, disability studies and accessibility, and the cultural heritage fields came together to discuss the challenges and advance the project of incorporating description into scholarly publications.10 The workshop was a unique opportunity for interdisciplinary dialogue around this issue and to clarify next steps in advancing the field of describing visual resources for accessibility.

This toolkit, which represents workshop participants’ collective knowledge and work, is meant to fill gaps in available guidance, direct practitioners to relevant resources, and catalyze the movement for accessible publishing by putting tools directly in the hands of authors, editors, publishers, and arts organizations.


  1. See U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Education, “Joint ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter: Electronic Book Readers,” June 29, 2010, U.S. Department of Education website, [Return]
  2. Matthew W. Brault, Americans with Disabilities: 2010, U.S. Census Bureau Report, July 2012,, page 8. [Return]
  3. Brault, Americans with Disabilities: 2010, 4. [Return]
  4. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics: 2013,, table 311.10. [Return]
  5. For an overview of current reading technology for blind readers, see Royal National Institute of Blind People, “Beginner’s guide to assistive technology,” <>; and American Federation of the Blind, “Using Technology for Reading: Solutions for People with Visual Impairments and Blindness,” <>. [Return]
  6. Standards for EPUB are maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum and include EPUB 3.1,, and EPUB Accessibility Guidelines, [Return]
  7. The inclusion of image descriptions has been identified as one the most critical issues in the implementation of EPUB 3. Association of American Publishers, EPUB 3 Implementation Project, [Return]
  8. EPUB 3 Accessibility Guidelines, last updated October 12, 2015, [Return]
  9. “DIAGRAM Image Description Guidelines,” accessed March 18, 2016,; Gould, Bryan, Trisha O’Connell, and Geoff Freed, “Effective Practices for Description of Science Content within Digital Talking Books,” (Boston: December 2008, The WGBH National Center for Accessible Media) [Return]
  10. For an overview of the workshop, see “University of Michigan Hosts Workshop on Describing Visual Resources in Arts and Humanities Publications,” University of Michigan Press blog, December 21, 2016, [Return]