eXtyles for accessibility: Part 3

When we talk about creating accessible publications, we’re talking about content that meets the needs of as many users as possible, including those with visual or print disabilities. Making your publications more accessible is the right thing to do, and it’s part of expanding their reach to more readers; it’s also increasingly mandated by local regulations, national legislation (such as Section 508 in the United States), and international legislation such as the Marrakesh Treaty and the European Accessibility Act.

When accessibility is the challenge, an XML-based workflow is part of the solution. That’s where eXtyles comes in, because step 1 of creating “born accessible” content is building semantic structure—that is, XML—into your publications early on. Once elements are correctly identified, accessibility tools can interpret them accurately and meaningfully.

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the what and the why of accessible publications and looked at how you can use eXtyles to add semantic structure to your documents, find and fix dysfunctional characters and fonts, and avoid language mix-ups. In Parts 2 and 3, we’ll explore how eXtyles can help you build accessibility into math and images.

We also recommend the Publishing Accessible Content resource page from our colleagues at Atypon!

[Read Part 1 of this series] [Read Part 2 of this series]

Use eXtyles to add accessibility to images

We know that a well-chosen image or well-designed chart, graph, or graphic can convey an enormous amount of information very quickly—if you have the means to interpret it. One key to making content accessible is ensuring that all elements—including visual elements—are equally interpretable to different readers. You can do this by providing machine-readable alt text and/or image descriptions for meaningful visual elements. This is also how you make images discoverable and searchable.

Almost all images in scholarly and technical content fall into one of two categories: (1) those that are an integral part of the content, and (2) those that are purely decorative. To help you figure out which of these types you’re dealing with, the Web Accessibility Initiative provides this decision tree. The decision sometimes comes down to asking yourself one question: If someone who’s reading this document can’t see this image, what will they be missing?

Describing images

The biggest category of visual elements includes images, charts, graphs, and other graphics that readers must be able to interpret in order to fully understand the document. For these elements, you will need to include alt text, image descriptions, or both.

→ What’s the difference? XML in the JATS family offers two options for describing images: <alt-text> and <long-desc>. The JATS Tag Library explains how and when to use <alt-text> and <long-desc> tags. If you provide only one of these, it should almost always be the image description, which offers the scope to fully describe and explain the image.

Conveying in words what’s going on in an image, chart, or graphic can be a complex undertaking. Those who understand the material best—usually authors—may not have expertise in how to write an image description; editors trained in best practices for writing image descriptions don’t necessarily have the subject-matter knowledge to describe a specific image accurately. Fortunately, many resources exist to help, including:

Decorative images

Sometimes, when you ask what someone who can’t see this image will be missing, the answer is “nothing.” If that’s the case, then the image falls into the “decorative” category, and it doesn’t need a description. In some cases, adding alt text or image descriptions to decorative images can actually make your content less accessible! For example, a logo that appears on every page of a PDF may not be particularly intrusive to the visual reader, but a screen-reader user will likely find repeated descriptions of the same logo very intrusive indeed.

Instead, HTML text should use a blank alt attribute (alt=” “) to indicate that there’s an image here, but it’s not one for which a description would be useful.

What about icons?

Sometimes these don’t need a description—for instance, if the same icon is always associated with the same heading or menu text, and this text conveys the meaning adequately. Other icons are used in place of text and are necessary to interpretation, and these require alt text; one example would be a symbol used to indicate the end of an article in a magazine. For actionable icons—such as a social sharing button or an envelope icon with a mailto: link—alt text is a must!

What not to put in your <alt-text>

Now that we’ve touched on some best practices for alt text and image descriptions, here are some things that you should never put in there:

  • The image filename or source path
  • The image caption
  • “Image”, “graph”, “photo”, “map”, or any other one-word non-description

The basic principle is that image descriptions and alt text should make your images more useful, not only to people who can’t see them, but also to those who can!


eXtyles makes it easier to build image accessibility into your documents and make these accessibility features portable and transformable.

  • Our Configuration team can add paragraph styles for your alt text and image descriptions.
  • With eXtyles Paragraph Styling, you can apply the appropriate styles to figure titles/captions and image descriptions.
  • eXtyles Citation Matching makes sure that the figures appear in order and that all of them are cited in the text, and then creates links between in-text mentions and figure captions, which is essential for screen readers to follow the flow of the article (and useful for everyone!).
  • eXtyles XML Export places <fig> elements in the right places, in the correct reading order, containing all the correctly tagged elements and attributes you need, including the alt text and image descriptions.