Don’t Do it for Me: 5 Great Benefits of Describing Your Photos

As a long-time supporter of inclusive online spaces, I’ve got plenty of practice asking, begging, pleading, wheedling, entreating, imploring: pretty, pretty please, good people, describe the images you post!
I and fellow visually impaired people have shared help links, posted general PSAs, and asked pointedly for descriptions in countless photo threads. We’ve even argued with each other about whether blind people are morally obligated to set an example (we should at least try, don’t @ me). It’s practically a full-time job, and nobody is having fun here.
By this point, most people with any exposure to the visually impaired community know that describing images is the right, kind, inclusive thing to do. But many of us don’t always do the right thing – or if we do, we don’t do so consistently. After doggedly describing dozens of wedding photos with my very patient husband, I discovered that while the process is a ton of work, it’s rewarding in ways I’d never noticed before. I want you to notice them, too.
To that end, please accept this list of incentives to make images more accessible, which doesn’t include ‘because you just should, damn it’ (again, don’t @ me).

1. You Catch the Small Stuff

I’d gone over my wedding photos before posting them, but crafting alt text demanded that my husband and I scrutinize them more closely. In the process, he (and by extension, I) noticed small, gem-like details we’d originally missed, like a silly expression on someone’s face, or an interesting background object that changed the mood of the shot.
If you’re translating a photo into words, you’ll discover more than the literal contents of the image. A shallow description involves listing the objects in the frame and writing out any text that may appear. A deeper and more useful description means asking yourself what the image is trying to convey. What’s the significance? Why are you sharing it? Which details have you missed? Which memories, conversations, emotions does this analysis inspire? If you’re posting a meme rather than a personal photo, what context or added humour does the image lend to the text?
It sounds like a homework assignment, but it’s really quite fun!

2. You Learn Things

This is perhaps less applicable to a fully sighted persons’ experience, but as a blind person working with someone with vision to create my descriptions, I found myself learning things I’d never thought to ask about. They ranged from the mundane—there was a heart cleverly hidden in one of our wedding signs—to the mind-blowing (my dress had an intricate vine pattern I somehow missed). I also learned that you can see raindrops in photographs, and that mirror images look very cool in pictures for some reason.
The revelations aren’t likely to be overwhelming, but in taking the time to really break a photo down, you’ll occasionally stumble upon exciting information you’d never have thought to seek otherwise. You may also gain insight into what makes a compelling photo.

3. You Get to Be Creative

Not everyone relishes playing with words, but describing images is uniquely challenging because it demands that we find alternative ways to express visual elements. Even if you’re posting something as simple as a nature scene, cute kitten photo or promotional poster, dreaming up descriptions encourages you to stretch creatively, especially if you want your visually impaired audience to have roughly the same experience your sighted audience would.
I knew, for example, that sighted people would laugh at goofy photos showing the mingled joy and anxiety on our faces as we ran to the limo through torrential rain. We wanted our blind friends to share in the humour of such formally dressed people looking so silly and yet, so happy that no amount of rain could dampen their joy. To do that, we had to move beyond a utilitarian description like “wedding party runs through rain,” and take the time to describe the interplay of the serious occasion, the comic interruption, and the radiant happiness underpinning it all. Our efforts were so successful that numerous blind friends approached me to thank me for providing such engaging descriptions. Where they’d normally skip right by someone’s wedding photos, a lot of people took the time to slow down and enjoy mine. That may not be enough, in itself, to sway you, but gratitude is a lovely perk, don’t you think?
Besides, writing captivating descriptions is more fun than it sounds.

4. You Make Your Content Easier to Find

Let’s say you’re not posting ravishing shots of my rain-splattered face (easy there, I’m attached). Let’s suppose you’re posting material to your website or your blog or your business Facebook page. You want people to find you, which means you’re doing everything you can to improve search engine optimization. You’re using brief, descriptive page titles and body copy that’s dense with keywords. You’re ensuring your material matches what people are likely to search for, and you’re even buying ad space to make yourself more attractive to search engine algorithms.
Why not take it a step further? Add alt text to your images, and give people yet another way to find you. Alt text descriptions improve SEO, and it won’t cost you a dime. Plus, it helps blind people give you their money and share your content with the world. Who says you can’t be a good citizen and boost your brand at the same time?

5. You Avoid Hassel

When you choose not to describe your photos, you risk people like me sliding into your DMs or plunging into your comment sections with our alt text evangelism. Most of us are nice about it, admirably nice given how often it comes up, but who wants to hammer out slapdash descriptions on the fly because some rando named Meagan keeps bugging you? Not you!
I jest, but I can’t stress this enough: I frequently lack essential info because it was buried in an image, and that means wasting my time (and yours) trying to figure out what I’ve missed. If the description is there to begin with, even a basic one, everyone wins.

Go on. Appreciate your images on a deeper level. Learn new things. Make more money. Gain more followers.
More importantly, feel really good about yourself, because you are helping make the web a better place, one accessible image at a time.
Do the right thing. Describe your photos.

“My Roommate Is Blind! Help!”

A few weeks before I was to move in with a sighted roommate, we met for coffee to discuss logistics. She seemed sanguine about the process, so I allowed myself to relax. Not until the conversation had begun to wind down did she drop this bombshell: her friends knew she was about to accept a blind roommate into her home, and they did not approve.
First came the predictable concerns: could a blind person hold up their end of household maintenance? Could blind people do much of anything at all? When I probed further, I unearthed more degrading questions: Would my sighted friend be capable of “caring for” me while dealing with her own issues, which were numerous at the time? Was she emotionally equipped to take on a disabled person on top of everything else on her plate? Would I take a toll on her mental health?
Stung, I reached out to fellow blind people to find out whether they’d encountered the same barriers. My Twitter mentions came alive, and I heard from people who had dealt with questions ranging from “How will you know if the house is clean?” to “Is it safe for blind people to cook unsupervised?” to “What if you leave the shower on constantly?” (I wish I were making this up.) Landlords, prospective roommates, and concerned hangers-on seemed content to judge blind people with limited evidence, causing embarrassment, anger, and major logistical issues for blind people seeking housing.
With guidance from many contributors, I’ve assembled a general guide for sighted people who are nervous about welcoming a visually impaired roommate. I’m not here to judge or condescend, so I hope you’ll read with an open mind, and share this with people who might need words of encouragement and advice.
Note: I use “blind” and “visually impaired” interchangeably throughout this post.

Don’t Panic

Whether you’re hitchhiking through the galaxy or preparing for a blind roommate, you must not panic, especially if you have little knowledge of the blind person in question. Until you’ve met them, you’ll be no more accurate a judge than if you were trying to guess what a sighted stranger would be like. Evaluate a blind roommate with the same criteria you’d use for a sighted one, and let that information guide your decisions. Never deny someone the opportunity to live with you just because they have a disability that makes you uncomfortable. You might inadvertently exclude stellar candidates!
External pressure from friends and family may be powerful, but don’t let it sway you. Unless they have intimate knowledge of your potential roommate, exercise caution. They may have your best interests at heart, but sound decision-making isn’t rooted in uninformed anxiety and misguided fear.

Ditch the Assumptions

Maybe you know a few blind people, and you assume this means you know what your blind roommate will be like. Perhaps you’ve never met a blind person, but you’ve seen a few on TV, or your friend has a friend whose cousin’s hairdresser’s nephew dated a blind person once, and fancies himself an authority. Whatever your experience with the blind community, remember that your roommate is as much an individual as you, and will have unique preferences, needs, and abilities.
If you take nothing else away from this post, please understand the importance of an assumption-free outlook. The overly-concerned sighted friends I referenced earlier let their assumptions run away with them, and concluded, without ever even meeting me, that I’d endanger my roommate’s mental health. This left me feeling scrutinized and unwelcome whenever they visited our apartment. I identified them as the people who viewed me as a walking, talking burden, which bled into everything I did while they were present. I doubt they were aware that I knew of their misgivings, and probably interpreted my skittish behavior as social awkwardness or unfriendliness.
Skill level, especially when it comes to household and mobility, varies widely among visually impaired people, as does visual acuity and the way that vision is used. One low-vision contributor pointed out that he can see people who are twenty feet away, but will likely run into ten obstacles on his way to that person, because that’s how his vision works. I can see a few colours and have some understanding of shape, but I’ll never read a label or notice visually that you’ve left a knife, blade up, lying in the sink. I’m a competent housekeeper but a hopeless cook; I know other blind people who can cook five-course meals and navigate transit like pros, but struggle to keep things tidy. Speak to your roommate about the specific tasks they can and cannot complete independently. Make sure it’s a respectful but candid conversation.

Make the Space Accessible

Fostering a blind-friendly household is neither complex nor demanding, but its exact form will differ depending on individual preferences. Not all blind people are particularly neurotic about organization, but nearly all of us depend on a reasonable level of predictability to function well in a common area. Keeping the environment consistent is the keystone of an accessible space. You are free to do what you will with your own space, but ensure that common areas are organized in a way you and your roommate consider efficient and manageable. Cooperation and communication are essential here: when one of my sighted roommates had moved my rice cooker for the fifth time in two months, I was reduced to crawling on my hands and knees to check the floor. Eventually, I discovered it tucked way under our kitchen table, in quite literally the last place I would ever have thought to look for it. I’m sure she was tired of receiving increasingly pointed texts asking where she’d placed this or that, but I was equally weary of having to ask at all. So, find a home for shared items, and stick to that system as much as possible. If you do move an object a substantial distance from its designated position, alert your roommate of the change, even if you think it’s insignificant to them. For people with low or no vision, an object moving even a few feet in any direction can throw us off completely, if only for a few moments.
The other adjustment you should anticipate is that some items, especially food packaging and appliances, will need to be made accessible for most visually impaired roommates. In my apartment, you’ll find transparent dots that adhere to the buttons on my microwave, allowing me to use the touch screen unassisted. When I lived in a place with private laundry access, I applied adhesive dots to make the washer and dryer easier to use. My then-roommate, who had far more vision, had to re-enable the singsong chirps the machines made, because these built-in audio cues enhanced accessibility for me. This was by far the largest sacrifice a roommate has ever had to make for me, and my needs are similar to most blind people I know. (Okay, so there was that time my roommate had to tell me I dropped an entire piece of pizza on the floor without noticing, but it was the cat’s fault, I swear.)
Your roommate may want to make similar adaptations, like a personalized labeling system. Usually, these are minor changes that won’t be intrusive or conspicuous, and don’t typically inconvenience sighted people. It’s up to your roommate to put these alterations into place, though they may need some assistance from you initially. In general, you don’t have to worry about an accessible space being an inefficient, complicated, or unlivable one. A blind-friendly household can be just as cozy, comfortable, and aesthetically pleasing as you could wish; it just takes a little time, patience, and ingenuity.
Finally, ask your roommate about their level of vision, so that you can understand what they can and can’t perceive in general terms. For example, if you accidentally leave a light on, will your roommate notice? Will excessively loud music or other distracting noises make it difficult for them to navigate safely? Could a plugged-in charging cable become a tripwire? If you combine laundry, can they sort unfamiliar clothing? Devise workarounds collaboratively, and try not to take it personally if your roommate has to remind you they can’t see. Many of us take this as a positive sign, in the sense that you’re not dwelling constantly on our disabilities. That’s definitely a win!

Embrace Job-Sharing

We’ve covered some of the ways you can help your blind roommate feel welcome and secure in your shared space. Now, we turn our focus toward what they can do for you. Should you expect blind roommates to contribute to the household in the same way a sighted roommate would?
Allow me to clamber to the highest available rooftop for this one: Yes! As I said, skill levels do vary, just like in the sighted world, so your roommate might be a great sweeper but awkward with a mop. They might be comfortable cleaning kitchens, but hesitant when cleaning bathrooms, particularly in situations when tactile feedback is limited by gloves and/or abrasive cleaning products. In my household, I avoid tasks like sweeping, because I am spatially clueless and tend to spread the dirt around in my clumsiness. I find scrubbing grimy bathtubs easy and highly tactile, though, so my partner handles the sweeping, and I handle the bathtub. When implemented cooperatively, job-sharing is an elegant solution, and tends to leave roommates feeling more egalitarian and less overwhelmed by household chores. Job-sharing is also an effective way to balance barriers relating to multiple disabilities, so that both roommates can be equally involved in household maintenance.
Oh, and if your potential blind roommate seems content to let you do all the work, that is an appropriate time to walk away, just as you would if the person were sighted.

Let Your Roommate Live

When I moved in with my very first sighted roommate, we were complete strangers to each other, matched by a program that was, in our case at least, woefully unintuitive. We discovered many points of incompatibility, for neither of us was particularly happy with the other, but her attitude toward disability was a constant wedge. Her friends would congregate in our minuscule kitchen nearly every night, quizzing me on my cooking and cleaning skills. I couldn’t put a frozen pizza in the microwave without fielding questions about how I handled every minor task without sight. I encourage questions, but I submit that rapid-fire interrogation should not take place while someone is visibly busy with tasks that require some measure of concentration. Later, when forced to be around a different roommate’s friends—the same ones who had declared me incompetent and troublesome before they’d even met me—I felt like I was trapped beneath a microscope, unable to escape unless I hid in my room for hours. While living with sighted people, I occasionally wished they could just turn off their eyes and give me a break. The feeling persists, even with my enormously respectful, partially-sighted partner. “Are you spying on me again?” has become our inside joke.
Be aware that your roommate may feel a slight imbalance, because you can see them, but they can’t see you. Respect their space as much as possible, leave their belongings alone unless you’ve asked permission to touch them, and reserve questions for times when your roommate is open to hearing them. Sometimes, as much as we may appreciate your curiosity, we just want to put our feet up and zone out. Chances are, we’ve just spent the whole day dealing with disability-related curiosity, and the last thing we feel like doing is walking straight into another question period when we get home.

Learn to Say No

No is your friend. No is not inherently mean or callous. There will be times when your blind roommate needs your help, and mostly, you’ll likely be more than willing to lend a hand. The majority of people I’ve lived with are naturally helpful, and I doubt you’ll have many occasions to deny assistance to your roommate. I applaud the instinct to be kind and say yes often, but never forget that you always have the right to say no.
Picture this: Your roommate is going grocery shopping, and would like you to help them find a few things. You often do your shopping together, but at this moment, you’re feeling ill, or busy studying, or about to head to work. Hell, maybe you’re just reading an engrossing book, and you’ve just gotten to the very best part. All of these scenarios allow you to simply say no. Unless you are deliberately bullying your roommate or breaking a previous commitment, they have no right whatsoever to argue. Presumably, you are both adults, which means you must respect each other’s time. Your roommate is not your charge. You are not their babysitter, and you do not owe them on-demand assistance.
Don’t misunderstand me: it’s healthy and normal to help your blind roommate. Ideally, they also help you when you’re in need. It’s what roommates do. I just want to make you aware that a harmful pattern can develop that places roommates in a hierarchical position where one is “the helped” and the other is “the helper.” That pattern is doubly insidious if you are romantically involved with your roommate. This is generally unsustainable, and a blind roommate who actively facilitates this dynamic is not on your side.
So, yes, you can say no to your disabled roommate now and again. It doesn’t make you a jerk, and living with a blind person is not a babysitting gig or charitable act. Indeed, many blind people would prefer the roommate relationship to be as mutual as possible, meaning the assistance and kindness flow both ways. Who knew?

Feel Better?

I really hope so! Now you know that blind and visually impaired roommates are a lot like sighted ones. They have varying skills and abilities, can ordinarily contribute to any household, and are no more likely to demand your time and energy than a sighted roommate would.
Bonus: they probably won’t destroy your mental health!
So, go ahead: move in with that blind person with confidence. If you enter the relationship with respect and openness, I predict excellent results. If it goes badly, come find me. I promise to say something comforting.
Good luck, and remember: don’t panic! Be curious, be open, be adventurous. Don’t be afraid.