Thoughts on skin tone and text descriptions
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In a blog post on writing great alt text, Jake Archibald asked "Should skin tone be mentioned in alt text?". It's a good question, and one I've asked myself as a blind person, so Jake's post has prompted me to do some thinking out loud...
Here's a question for you: if you read a text description that says "A person", what does the image in your head look like?
There's a good chance that the person in your imagination looks a lot like you. That's because to you, you are your own normal.
One of the ways we normalise diversity is by making it, well, normal. The more you see people who are not like you on TV, in adverts, in the workplace, and every other place that humans can be found, the more normal it becomes.
When it comes to skin tone and ethnicity, much of this depends on the ability to see; so how do we make sure that people who cannot see are experiencing the same normalisation?
Jake rightly points out that context is important, and he makes this very reasonable comment:
Jake is right, but I also trust he won't mind if I suggest another way to look at it:
When I'm invited to speak at a conference, or I'm interested in attending one, one of the things I want to know is if the organisers have brought together a diverse line-up of speakers. Not all forms of diversity are visible of course, but if a person's skin tone and/or ethnicity are included in the text description, it normalises the idea that great conference speakers come from diverse ethnic backgrounds, even if you cannot see the photos of the speakers themselves.
There can be times when not mentioning skin tone can have unexpected consequences. I recently watched Lupin, a Netflix series set in Paris, where the lead character is played by an actor of colour.
There is a scene where Lupin fools the police into arresting someone else, instead of Lupin himself. The switch is possible because both characters are wearing similar clothes, and because both characters are people of colour. Except the Audio Description (AD) hadn't mentioned that the other character was a person of colour, only that Lupin was, and because diversity has not yet become normalised on TV, I assumed the "someone else" was white.
Yes, I know. That was my assumption at fault. But that's the point I'm trying to make: in the absence of information to the contrary, and until diversity is normalised in the ways blind people consume content, I'm likely to assume that, left unspecified, that "someone else" looks like me. I'm trying to do better, but a little (text description) help would go a long way.
An interesting note on this particular case, is that if the AD had described the skin tone of the other person, it would have drawn attention to the fact and that in turn would have been a clue to the impending twist in the story. If the AD had included skin tone as a regular part of describing all the characters, I wouldn't have given it a second thought, and the end of the episode would have been as much of a surprise to me as everyone else.
Which brings me to another point: normalising diversity is important, but so is enjoying it. The world would be an incredibly boring place if we all looked the same, but of course to a blind person everyone does look the same, unless things like text descriptions and AD enable us to both normalise and enjoy all the wonderful ways a human being can look.