How to Describe Things to Blind People

Ever wondered how to describe a photo, a movie, or an interesting landmark to a blind person?

Unlike sighted guide, there is no “correct” way to describe things, but there are a few things you can do to make your descriptions resonate.

How to describe a photo to a blind person.

A good photo description captures the important aspects of a photo within a few short sentences. It should identify all the people in the photo and briefly describe where they are. If possible, mention what they’re wearing, their facial expressions, and/or their poses. For example, this blog post’s featured image description is: Jenna stands between two girls in a parking lot. Heidi, far left, wears a white t-shirt and grins toothily as her hair blows in the breeze. Jenna wears a green t-shirt and smiles happily, as she hunches forward a little to wrap an arm around Heidi. Sirena, far right, wears a white t-shirt with black butterflies and has one arm around Jenna. Of the three blind girls, she is the only one looking straight at the camera. Jenna’s eyes are mostly closed as she looks slightly down, and Heidi squints slightly up at the sky. At the bottom of the photo, a pair of golden eyes peer mournfully at the camera, as Heidi’s guide dog, Nile, attempts to inch his way into the photo.

Usually, the more detail the better is your motto for photo descriptions, but don’t feel bad if you don’t have time or are unsure how to work everything into a smooth synopsis. For instance, I could not find a way to include that Sirena is wearing sunglasses, that Jenna wears silver star earrings, or that trees are visible in the background. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, but we’re not expecting you to write an essay.

Pro tip: make sure to refer to yourself in the third person. Don’t confuse the photo with first-person pronouns like I, me, or mine.

Landscape photos are often less complicated to describe. These descriptions are often much shorter as clouds don’t have facial expressions, and trees wear a limited supply of outfits. I don’t know if this is true of all blindies, or if it’s just a Jenna thing, but I personally appreciate detailed color descriptions. If you read my last post, you’ll know I remember what some colors look like. When people use vivid color descriptions such as coal black, onyx, funeral black, or midnight, I get such a clear visual of what you’re describing. Black takes on texture, shape, and emotion when such vivid thought is put into the description. I first noticed this while writing my book series and have been trying to incorporate this type of distinct wording into my photo descriptions on social media.

That brings me to another great point. Where to use photo descriptions…and how?

Instagram and WordPress have a box specifically for typing photo descriptions for screen readers. Simply type your description into the alt text box, and it’ll read your words out loud when we scroll to your photo. Without your description, your photo will read something like this: “photo may contain three people, people smiling, outside, and trees.” This is a good generated attempt but horribly lacking when compared to the hand-crafted description of this blog post’s featured image.

A friend, the afore mentioned sighted guide master, recently discovered the alt text box on Instagram and went on a mission to write photo descriptions for her 300+ photos. Talk about a commitment to accessibility!

Until recently, facebook did not have the alt text feature, so photo descriptions just had to hang out within the post after the photo caption. But, now facebook has joined instagram on the accessability train and has added an alt text box of their own. Simply click on the photo, tap more, and edit the alt text box. You may have to click something that says override generated alt text, but don’t worry, that’s fine. Your exemplary compilation of awesome is much preferred over the automatically generated pd!

Blindies, if you can’t remember what a photo looks like or just want a bit more detail in your description, it’s often a good idea to get a sighted friend or an #Aira agent to describe it to you. You can still write out your own description, but having the sighted confirmation that your description is accurate is good practice. I, myself, have my awesome bestie/blog assistant find all my featured images and describe them to me before I write out the descriptions and add them to my posts. So big shout out to her, she’s awesome with detail and super great to spend the time helping.

How to describe a movie to a blind person.

If a photo is worth 1,000 words, a movie is worth 1,000,000. Unless you’re a trained audio-description specialist and are reading from a pre-written script, you’re never going to be able to describe everything happening in a movie. But really, that’s okay. Just focus on the big things first, and describe whatever you feel is next important until you run out of time. Action scenes are notoriously hard, so don’t worry if you need to pause the movie occasionally to explain the important fast-paced stuff. Quiet scenes with little dialogue are great times for detail such as small facial reactions and the like. Basically, just focus on the essential to the plot stuff first, and then throw in whatever else you can. Don’t get stressed, the blindy you’re describing too should just be happy you’re trying. (Yes, I have gone on dates with guys who don’t even try). On the opposite side of the spectrum, my sighted father, having a blind wife and three blind children, finds descriptive video so natural we often find him in front of the TV by himself, narrating the visual aspects of a movie to an empty room. My sighted brother gets so carried away describing important details he sometimes tells me things like “and she’s crying” as the actress in question wails audibly in the background. Like thanks bro, I clearly would not have guessed that. 😛

Helpfully, some theaters have movie headsets that play the movie along with descriptive video. This allows the blindy to get all the detail of a professional and lets the sighty with them chill out and not worry about describing a movie that cannot be paused. Sighties, if you wanna join in the experience, feel free to grab a descriptive headset for yourself. You might even pick up a few movie describing tips by doing this.

Another way to get examples of what to include when describing a movie is to turn on audio subtitles on Netflix and watch a show with audio description. Most Netflix originals have audio description, so a ridiculously enormous shout out to Netflix’s accessibility! I have trained myself to fill in the gaps when I watch shows alone without audio description, but sometimes, there’s not enough to go on. Watching “How to Get Away with Murder”, for instance, is no picnic. There’s a blood-curdling scream, someone’s obviously dead, but it’s anybody’s guess as to who kicked the bucket. I usually find out in a few episodes. Talk about suspense. Also, I spent an agonizing ten minutes at the end of season eleven of Gray’s Anatomy hoping against hope that Mc-Dreamy had merely watched someone get hit by a bus, rather than it was him who had been hit. Alas, I was wrong.

How to describe everyday things to a blind person.

It’s really not as hard as it sounds. Work it into the conversation. “There’s this insanely cute dog over in front of Starbucks. It’s eying someone’s muffin like it hasn’t eaten in at least twenty minutes. I think it might be a chocolate lab. It has pretty brown eyes.” You don’t have to write it down, you have all the time in the world to share detail, and you’re just making conversation. Describe whatever you think is cool, whatever interests you in the moment, or whatever you think the blindy you’re with would appreciate knowing about.

For example: my legendary first uni friend described her appearance to me soon after we met. Because of this, I have never forgotten what she looks like and years later, still have what I think is a pretty accurate mental picture of her in my head. As someone who has been blind since birth, this is pretty rare. I hardly ever know what my friends look like, and I don’t even have that clear of an image of what I myself look like. But this friend, because she described herself so accurately and so soon after we met, is vivid in my mind. As a blind person, I rely on occasional mentions to slowly piece together what people and things look like visually. A friend will remark that certain colors don’t go with her red hair, find the perfect outfit to bring out her green eyes, or complain about her bra size. These little details are rarely mentioned together and so I usually never have a clear image in my head of what people around me look like. I’m not saying it’s a good idea to immediately describe your appearance to every blindy you meet, but taking the time to ask if they’d like to know what something looks like is often much appreciated.

One last thing I’ll slip in here real quick. In social gatherings, it’s very common for non-verbal jokes and the like to pepper conversations. There’s nothing more awkward than sitting in a group as everyone around you laughs while you try to smile, not having the faintest idea what’s funny. Quietly describing what happened is the most inclusive thing a sighted ally can do in this moment. Even if the blindy has to snicker belatedly, at least they know what happened and they’re not being left out.

Be kind, and be aware.

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10 thoughts on “How to Describe Things to Blind People

  1. Hi, I just discovered your blog today from a friend on Facebook. This is such a good article. I am a fellow blogger, please check out mine at mirandaleeoakley.com Your blog is so good! Have a great day.

  2. First of all I would like to say terrific blog! I had a quick question that I’d
    like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center
    yourself and clear your thoughts prior to writing. I have
    had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out.
    I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to figure out
    how to begin. Any suggestions or hints? Appreciate it!

    1. Thanks, what a flattering question. I think about what I’m going to write for at least a couple days before I write it. Ideas just kind of hang out at the back of my mind so that when I sit down to put them in front of me, I have a rough idea of the points I want to make. I also find listening to music gets me in the creative mood. Hope that helps, great question!

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