woman talking with 2 men

Use Alt Tags on Websites

More often than not, when a company builds a website, it is not designed with accessibility in mind. Over the past few years, questions have been raised about whether designing for easy access for persons with disabilities is required, but the fundamentals of web accessibility remain daunting.

Municipal utilities and public utility districts must build websites easily understood by consumers with vision, hearing, mental, physical, and other types of disabilities. It’s the law (see below). Electric cooperatives, though not technically required to follow suit, should probably do it, too.

But this is not a one-time upgrade. After all, we add new content to websites all the time. Keeping a website accessible takes time, maintenance, and staff training.

One common mistake, the alt tag, quickly makes a site inaccessible for consumers with vision challenges if not handled carefully.

What’s an Alt Tag?

An alt tag—shorthand for an image’s alternative attribute—lets you describe an image to people who are blind and use a screen reader. All modern content management systems should have the ability to add an alt tag to an image. Be sure to use the alt tag field, not the image title field. For folks who have a WordPress site designed by Pioneer Utility Resources, here’s a good tutorial from WPBeginner.

A picture can be worth a thousand words, but alt tags typically should not be more than 16 words. How do you know if you are describing an image properly?

The first step when picking the right alt tag for an image is to decide if the image conveys content or is purely decorative. If the content the image conveys is presented within text in the surrounding context of the image, an empty alt tag may suffice.

However, if you were reading the article to a blind person and would describe the image to him or her to explain the story, add that description as an alt tag. The exception would be if the image is captioned; if so, you typically do not need an alt tag. Screen readers will read the caption to the user. Having the same information for the alt tag may be redundant.

The alternative text for one image may be vastly different based on the context and surroundings of the image itself. Take, for instance, the following image:

Bonneville Dam view in Columbia River Gorge after forest fire. Hydroelectric power generation structures between Oregon and Washington

If I was to give this image an alt tag, it could be, “Bonneville Dam view in Columbia River Gorge after forest fire. Hydroelectric power generation structures between Oregon and Washington.”

Will you get sued if your description is not on to a tee? Unlikely, because this is generally a matter of opinion. There is no right or wrong answer.

Some images—charts, for example—provide content. Typically, these images need to have alt text that describes the text in the image exactly. You are essentially providing different content to someone based on his or her abilities. That, by definition, is segregation—a form of discrimination. An attorney could argue you are violating the web visitor’s civil rights based on their disability.

hands holding annual meeting signThe image on the right clearly conveys information. The man’s hands and shirt in the background are decorative, but there is also information about an annual meeting. The content I read without having a disability is “Annual Meeting.” To ensure I do not segregate any blind website visitor, I need to include the same message in the alt tag. The alt tag would say “Annual Meeting.” If I shorten my alt tag to “meeting,” I have essentially provided different content to someone because of his or her disability.

New images are added to your website every month. Educating staff on alt tags is a big step towards keeping your website compliant with the law.

Who Must Obey the Law?

Forty-five years ago, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 aimed to stop discrimination on the basis of disability (vision, hearing, mental, physical) by federal agencies. The act requires any group doing business with federal agencies or receiving benefits from federal agencies to follow the government’s lead.

In 1990, the umbrella of protections for people with disabilities widened to include state and local government agencies (including municipal utilities and public utility districts) through Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

As technologies evolved, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 changed, too. Section 508 was updated in 2001 to make sure electronic information can be found and understood by everyone. The new website accessibility requirements stem from this part of the law.

An updated rule on website accessibility was published in the U.S. Federal Register last year (read the rule on the Federal Register website). Federal agencies and organizations receiving benefits from federal agencies—including municipal utilities and public utility districts—had a year to update their websites to meet the accessibility guidelines. The grace period ended on January 18, 2018.

Municipal utilities and public utility districts must follow these rules. But what about electric cooperatives? This is a grey area. Co-ops do not fall in under Title II, but they often buy power or get federally guaranteed loans from the government. Energy rebate dollars and grants often come from federal agencies, too. Co-ops may need to comply because they do business with federal agencies. The decision on whether to comply with the rules—to be safe and socially responsible—rests with co-op leadership.

Learn more about website accessibility in these blog posts:

Need Help?

If your utility planned to build a new office, would you hire an architect or contractor with no knowledge of ADA laws? No, of course not. Your website is no different. Pioneer’s web team has extensive experience updating or completely rebuilding websites to be easily understood by all consumers.

If you would like Pioneer’s web team to review images on your website and provide feedback, email our Marketing department.