Tag Archives: Disability

Image Description and Identity

Sometimes I try to take on big questions; today we’re going to keep it light and only tackle the nature of identity and the relationship between author and reader in interpreting an image.

It all started with a question about image descriptions. Image descriptions are a way of making the images in webpages more accessible, primarily for readers with print disabilities. Screen readers will read accessible text, but when they encounter a photo, say (to take an image at random)

Image: Photo of golden retriever.

the screen reader can’t read it or render any useful information from it unless you add an image description. To make sure that print-disabled readers aren’t left out, I would add the description “Image: Photo of golden retriever.” I can put that either in the body of the blog, or in the “alt-text” field of the photo when I upload it. Here, I did both.

When adding image descriptions, I’m always challenged by how much detail to include. The photo above is easy: there’s one major feature and it’s quick and easy to describe. When I describe people, I’ve tended to describe them using a couple of basic characteristics: gender; age(ish); race; and perhaps an additional detail or two (color of clothing; glasses; sitting/standing). When someone is in a wheelchair, I say that; when they’re not, I don’t say anything.

For example, I described this photo

Image: slighly blurry black & white photo of a group of 6 people. In back, a young woman, two middle aged men and a middle aged woman; in front of them, an older woman, and in front of her, a child of about 10.


slightly blurry black & white photo of a group of 6 people. In back, a young woman, two middle aged men and a middle aged woman; in front of them, an older woman, and in front of her, a child of about 10.

When I started adding image descriptions to the large number of people photos in the presentation we put together to introduce CREEC, I started tripping over the question of how — if at all — to describe race and ethnicity.  Many of the photos depicted people whose races were (1) obvious; and (2) known to me.  For example, this awesomely cliched photo that Tim and I had taken around 2002 as an Official Fox &  Robertson Photo:

Tim and Amy at a conference table ca. 2002.  (Tim is a white man with short blond hair who uses a wheelchair.  He is dressed in a suit.  Amy is a white woman with short brown hair and glasses.  She is sitting in a chair, also wearing a suit.  In the foreground, a table posed with law books, a speaker phone, files and mugs.

I described it:

Tim and Amy at a conference table ca. 2002.  Tim is a white man with short blond hair who uses a wheelchair.  He is dressed in a suit.  Amy is a white woman with short brown hair and glasses.  She is sitting in a chair, also wearing a suit.  In the foreground, a table posed with law books, a speaker phone, files and mugs.

That was easy:  I’m white; Tim’s white; I know our races.  Tim’s disability is visible.  All the props on the table probably aren’t that relevant, but my view is that the description helps convey the posed-ness of the photo.

But what about photos depicting people whose race or ethnicity was either unknown to me or not easily described?  This, in turn, raised the obvious question whether it is relevant at all. I felt torn between trying to achieve accuracy for print-disabled readers and adding unnecessary focus on race and ethnicity. I posed this question on Facebook, and deeply enjoyed the ensuing discussion.

When adding image descriptions to photos, what do you do about perceived vs. known vs. visible ethnicities? For example, if I’m in a photo with an African-American woman, I would say something like, “White woman in white shirt and jeans; African-American woman in dark shirt and skirt.”  Easy.  But what about describing someone whose ethnicity is likely neither white nor African-American but is not known to me? Or someone who “looks” “white,” but I know would be annoyed by being described as “white.” Describing degrees of skin tone seems weird.

A surprising number of people responded with something like, “I don’t describe race.”   From Andrew Montoya:

Generally I do not comment on race/skin tone in alt text unless it’s germane to the picture.

From Carrie Lucas:

I don’t describe skin color.  If race is important to the picture, or skin, hair, etc, then describe it.  Otherwise just say “person” or “people of multiple races.”

My response (edited for coherence):

But that would mean that (respectfully) I’m making the decision for the reader when race/color/ethnicity are relevant. I try to be complete and objective in descriptions, though completeness is never possible and there is always editorial discretion.

If you don’t mention race, do you say “woman in a wheelchair” “older woman” “young girl” or just “person”?   What matters?  Gender? Race? Age? Disability? Hair color? Skin color?  At what point are we short-changing a blind reader who just wants to know what the photo looks like.


  I wouldn’t say race; I would say “dark colored skin, light colored skin, olive colored skin.”


But if I say that [Chinese-American colleague] has “olive skin” don’t I leave out something important, that is, that he’s Asian?  Or do I have to anatomically describe his eyelids?


But then where do you draw the line? How much detail do you use to describe the individual’s clothes, type of glasses, how the hair swoops over an eye, where the person’s shadow falls against the all white background even? It seems a line must be drawn somewhere lest you lose the content to the details of the description. So unless race is part of the relevance of the picture, I prefer to let people be people.

I will state that a person is in a wheelchair or using other equipment if it’s relevant. I rarely mention age, unless it’s relevant to the description (i.e., saying “cranky man” doesn’t convey the image as well as saying “cranky old man” for the stock picture of the muppet in the theater box guy). I do often state gender, as it seems a natural descriptor, but generally only for pictures where there’s only one gender present. However, stating a race or skin color where it’s not relevant to the picture seems odd and forced to me. As for determining relevance, I think that I’m already editorializing by having used the picture. I intend it to convey a particular thing by using it, so that’s where I focus my alt text description.


Some descriptions I have seen include information that is visible such as describing the skin tone but not assigning racial identity. So the description might say: “a light skinned female appearing person sits in a wheelchair. A dark skinned male appearing person stands nearby wearing a dark suit with a light shirt and plaid tie.”

Good point:  you can’t assume gender either.


It depends on why you are including the picture; whether race is important to the purpose of the picture.


But I think that’s circular, in the sense that “importance” is created by the interaction of creator and reader.  Should my purpose be the be-all-and-end-all of the decision?  I totally agree you have to make choices or you’d spend 3 paragraphs describing the building in the background of the photo, etc. But the question of when race is relevant seems to me to be one that the reader should make.


Yes, you are the author.


Don’t you often see things in photos that the photographer or user didn’t see or intend? I think we’re heading into lit crit territory!!!

That is, it was starting to sound very vaguely like the discussions of author, reader, and text that my much smarter classmates were having in 1981.  Which, to me, meant that I was way in over my head, and thus could start making shit up with impunity!

Then my law school roommate, Kristin Robinson, chimed in.  She was a grad student in American Studies (IIRC) when the two of us and a med student shared a house in 1985, and we’ve only recently reconnected on Facebook.

Long descriptions include information that is relevant to understanding the reason (instructional goal) the image has been included. It highlights salient information. So, if race or other aspects of people’s appearance is salient, you would include it. If it isn’t, you wouldn’t.

So perhaps in a strictly educational context, the teacher’s purpose is more important than total transparency.  Kristin also provided a helpful link to guidelines for describing science and technology images in the educational context.  The very first guideline is

Brevity. The most frequent recommendation from respondents was for more brevity in description. Simply put, it takes people with visual impairments more time to read books and articles than people without visual impairments and the process should not be further slowed down by unnecessarily long image descriptions.

For all my pontificating about the need for enough detail to let print-disabled readers interpret the image, I may also be annoying the crap out of them with verbose image descriptions.

Here’s where I end up.  Once you start describing people — that is, going beyond something like “three people in the background” — you owe it to your readers to give a description sufficient to let them decide what features are relevant.  To my mind, that includes at least (perceived) gender, age, race/ethnicity/skin tone, and [visible] disability/lack.

There will always be filtering and interpretation in the descriptions and I realize that my perceptions (and thus descriptions) will not always be accurate.  That I may describe someone in a way that suggests the wrong identity, or that suggests an ethnic, gender or disability identity where the subject would prefer to be just “a person.”  So I’m making a decision that affects not only the reader but the subject.

Ultimately — perhaps by dint of what I do for a living — I don’t think I should be deciding for the reader that race and other identities don’t matter.  I may use a photo for one purpose, while my reader perceives other meanings.  When I see a photo, my eyes and brain (with its inevitable set of life experiences and preconceptions) conspire to give it meaning.  Sometimes that meaning may be different from what the photographer and/or author intended.  My goal in creating an image description should be to try — with acknowledged and inevitable limitations — to provide the opportunity for a print-disabled reader to have that same conspiracy of brain and ear to give their meaning to the image.


There is finally a stock photography site full of real, active, did I mention real? people with disabilitiesPhotoAbility.net has apparently been up and running for a couple of years; I just discovered it because its founder, Deborah Davis, was featured as New Mobility’s Person of the Year.

We first used stock photography in a monumentally misguided* attempt to settle a case by presenting the defendant with examples of how people with disabilities could be part of its advertising and outreach.  Seeking stock photographs, we ran searches like “wheelchair,” “disabled” and of course “handicapped” in the various mainstream stock photography sites.  What we found were (1) hospital and medical images; and (2) essentially fake images in which obviously non-disabled people had seated themselves in crappy gray-vinyl hospital wheelchairs to undertake random daily tasks.

When we finally found a couple of images that seemed genuine, we bought them, and then discovered such images were so rare, we saw the same folks all over the damn place.  I’m guessing, for example, if you read any sort of disability-oriented publication, you’ve encountered these photogenic folks:

{Image: Photo of boy and man. Both are African-American. The man is on the right, sitting in a manual wheelchair, spinning a basketball on his finger. The boy stands to his side, watching the basketball and holding up one finger as if to imitate the man.}

{Image: a woman and girl, both white, both blond. The girl is in a manual wheelchair. The woman hugs her from behind.}

We had such little luck finding real images that we solicited some from photogenic friends doing photogenic things with photogenic kids, and then took one or two ourselves.  This, for example, is our friend Julie, her two older daughters, and our dog in our backyard.  Think PhotoAbility would be interested?

{Image:  A blond woman (sitting in a manual wheelchair) and two blond girls playing with a golden retriever dog under a tree in a fenced yard.  One girl, perhaps two years old, sits in her mother's lap.  The other girl, perhaps 6 years old, holds a toy out to the dog.}

We continue to use stock images on our website and in educational materials, so I’m very excited to learn about stock photography with gen-u-ine pwds doing genuinely cool stuff.  Also that PhotoAbility is part of a network of great sites at PushLiving.com about inclusive travel, lifestyle, design, etc.  Check them out!


* Part of a hilariously grandiose settlement attempt suggested by new and (as it turned out) temporary co-counsel.  We appeared at a meeting with the defendant’s general counsel and her posse with a bunch of spiral-bound glossy brochures featuring our purchased and home-made stock images and a bunch of powerpoint verbiage about how wonderful and inclusive access was and how it would enhance their image, etc. etc., and of course they could not possibly have cared less.  They wanted to know what it would cost, thanks for making the trip, goodbye.  Luckily, since it was early in our practice, our dear, wonderful copy people “forgot” to charge us for the glossy brochures and spiral binding.  The case finally settled — three general counsels and two outside counsels later.  So it goes.

Hey, Lego, where’s *my* family?

I thought this sounded like a cool idea:

{Lego ad showing sample family of four people standing on two feet, plus a baby carriage.  Text reads "Minifigure Family.  Sending holiday cards was never this much fun!  Minifigure Family lets you create a customized holiday card featuring Minifigure representations of your own family. It's easy!"

Then I got started creating a holiday card with Minifigure representations of my own family, and found that it was not only not easy, but downright impossible.  Even though Lego appears to sell a variety of Minifigures With Disabilities (“MWD”), including Determined Wheelchair Tennis Player,

{Image of lego minifigure woman in a wheelchair holding a tennis racquet.  On her face is a very determined look, with eyes wide and yebrows constricted.}

Pissed Off Wheelchair Soccer Player,

{Image of lego minifigure man in a wheelchair kicking a soccer ball.  On his face is a pissed off look, with his mouth ticked off to the side and his eyebrows constricted.}

Really Pissed Off Wheelchair Basketball Player,

{Image of lego minifigure man in a wheelchair holding a a basketball.  On his face is a very angry look, with his teeth gritted and his eyebrows constricted.}

and Reasonably Emotionally Well-Adjusted Khaki Shirt Guy,

{Image of lego minifigure man in a wheelchair wearing a khaki shirt with a benevolent expression on his face.}

their Minifigure Holiday Card Generator does not have any wheelchair-using options.

Hey, Lego, what’s up with that?

Of course, that didn’t stop me from trying my best within Lego’s narrow-minded constraints:

{Image of two people and a dog on the surface of a distant planet, surrounded by flying asteroids, with a volcano and meteorite in the background.  The first Lego Minifigure on the left is labeled "Amy."  She has a helmet with antennae, a green shirt hanging with knives and other implements, and -- hanging from her belt -- a skull, a tooth and a test tube containing a spider.  The middle figure, labeled "Tim" is a man with blond hair, glasses and a wooden leg.  His shirt contains dials and meters.  The third figure is a yellow dog.}

Yes, Tim’s entire disability experience is represented by… a wooden leg.

The ramps of Route 1

[Cross-posted at CREECblog.]

Every summer or so, we visit my brother and his family at their place in Maine.  To do this, we generally fly into Boston and then drive the four hours from Logan to mid-coast Maine.  The first three hours are on I-95; the last hour or so on Route 1 from Brunswick to Thomaston.  It has long struck me, as we meander up the barely two-lane road — often at 30 mph behind a giant RV or tractor — the amazing number of very small businesses that have ramps.

This past weekend I made the trip with no deadline and no one else in the car, so I had the time* to take some photos of these examples of readily-achievableness. (Ready achievability?)**

Disclaimer, because every now and again some defense-side attorney (hi, guys!) may read this:  I did not evaluate these ramps for compliance with the Standards.  I don’t know their dimensions or slope.  If you try to introduce this as evidence in one of my cases, I will file a Motion for Judicial Notice of Completely Missing the Point.

The first couple were actually near Manchester, NH, where I had taken a detour to visit a college classmate.

Small free-standing store with parking lot.  Store has steps in front and a ramp up the side starting from the back of the store and rising to the middle of the right hand side.
These next two are churches, which aren’t even covered by the ADA (unless they have some sort of commercial business on the side):

Front view of white building with three steps at the front entrance (in the middle of the front of the building) and a ramp extending from the entrance along the front to the left side of the building.  Ramp has a sign that reads, "Christ Died for Our Sins."


Photo of beige church building with the words "Saint Peter" on the front and a ramp curving around to the right side of the building.


Onward to Rte 1:

One story building with front porch accessible by a short ramp in front of the building.

This actually might have been someone’s house.  Along Route 1, the distinction between house and business is often sort of vague.

Gabled grey house with wooden ramp extending from the front door and curling around to the right in the front yard.  The base of the ramp is white lattice work and flowers grow along the front of the base.

Just north of Wiscasset.

Small free-standing red building with a ramp extending from the middle of the front off to the right.

Jean Kigel Studio, Damariscotta.

One-story building viewed from the side where a ramp provides access up onto the porch.

Cheap cigarettes in Waldoboro.

One-store store with a sign in the front reading "Cheap Cigarettes."  The front door is served by a short apparently level ramp with a slighly sloped portion at the end.

Somewhere south of Thomaston.

House or business with approximately five steps to the front door and a ramp to a side door on the left.

The Hair Loft, Warren, Maine.

One-story building with a sign reading "Hair Loft."  The front entrance is on the left side of the photo, served by approximately six steps.  The door is also served by a ramp from the door leading to the right of the photo.

Unidentified business, Warren:

Front of a two-story house or business with a wide metal ramp leading to the front entrance.

The famous Moody’s Diner, Waldoboro:

White building with neon sign reading "Moody's Diner" on the roof.  A ramp is positioned along the left side of the building leading up to the entrance in the middle.

Ralph’s Homes, Waldoboro:

Freestanding white building with a long switch-back ramp serving the front entrance, which is up approximately six steps.

Random business south of Waldoboro:

Red building with approximately 3 steps to a porch serving the front entrance.  A ramp serves the porch as well.

The Nobleboro Antique Exchange:

Blue two-story building with a switch back ramp serving the porch and front entrance.  Sign in front of the building reads "Nobleboro Antique Exchange."

So next time you hear some fancy store or chain claim that it’s not readily achievable to ramp their business, here are some examples to, in legal terminology, call baloney.***


* My leisurely pace turned out to have been a good plan for another reason:  when I got to my brother’s house, he and his family were out and their house was guarded by their snarling goldendoodle.  Seriously.  This dog

Benign-looking light brown dog, sized somewhere between a poodle and a golden retriever, with a multicolored color, sitting on a lawn looking to the right of the photo.

exiled me to the hammock until my hosts returned to chaperone my canine interaction.

I was not suffering:

Legs and feet of photographer on hammock, sunny Maine seascape in the background.


** Under the ADA, buildings built after January 26, 1993 were required to be accessible.  42 U.S.C. § 12183(a).  Those built before that date and not altered since must remove barriers — by, for example, ramping entrances that are only accessible by steps — where it is “readily achievable” to do so.  42 U.S.C. § 12182(b)(2)(A)(iv).

*** I might have used a different word if not for the cross-posting, but I’m trying to keep it clean on CREECblog.

No, I’m not “with the wheelchair.”

I’m “with the passenger in a wheelchair” or perhaps “with the passenger who uses a wheelchair,” or most accurately, “with the hot guy using a wheelchair.”

But I guess this makes the distinction clear:



If you are a “wheel chair” or a stroller, you are not a “passenger.”  You are your equipment.

And airline people, you don’t have “two wheelchairs on the plane.”  As a matter of empirical fact, you have zero wheelchairs on the plane.  You have two people who use wheelchairs who are waiting patiently on your plane for the doofuses (doofi?) in your ramp crew to figure out how to get their wheelchairs to the jetway.

I realize there are other circumstances in which an object associated with a person comes to stand for the person.  “Suits” comes to mind, to mean the dweebs in the organization who are imposing rules on the real people who want to create/get things done/think outside the box.  It’s not a compliment.  “Brass” for officers, perhaps.  “Uniforms” to distinguish beat cops from higher ranking detectives.  I would put “wheelchair” as a substitute for the person in a very different category, though, largely because I only hear it from people in a position to treat the people themselves as objects.

I don’t take a position on the people-first language discussion, that is, whether it is better to say “disabled person” or “person with a disability.”  Both seem better than “the disabled,” but as my disabled friend/friend with a disability Laura Hershey would say, English puts its adjectives before its nouns, so “disabled person” puts the focus on the person, it just does so grammatically.

But once you’ve taken the person out of the equation completely and substituted the thing, you’ve left the realm of grammar and made a decision to depersonalize.

The funny thing is, I always respond — when I hear this — “no I’m not with the wheelchair, I’m with the guy in the wheelchair”  or to the airline peeps, “actually, you don’t have two wheelchairs on board, you have two people who use wheelchairs.”  But no one even gets the difference.


Prior litigation: admissible; evidence of life with a disability: inadmissible.

[Cross posted at FoxRobBlog, which is involved in some sort of DNS attack.  Whatever that is.]

In Yates v. Sweet Potato Enterprises, Inc., 2013 WL 3662645 (N.D. Cal. July 12, 2013), the plaintiff — a guy who uses a wheelchair — alleges that he encountered barriers at a Popeyes restaurant.  In the order, the judge addresses questions from both the plaintiff and the defendant about what evidence can be used at trial.  In so doing, she does two things that are stunning individually, but that — taken together — turn the plaintiff into the defendant, defending his right to equal access to the businesses that non-disabled people patronize everyday without a second thought.

First, the court grants the defendant’s motion to exclude “sympathy-inducing evidence regarding Plaintiff’s disability” that is not directly relevant to his experience at Popeyes, including “testimony regarding his day-to-day hardships.” The court just doesn’t see how that’s relevant.

Second, the court denies the plaintiff’s motion to exclude evidence that he has filed a large number of other access lawsuits.


If people who use wheelchairs filed a lawsuit challenging every illegal barrier they encountered each day, most would file — I’m guessing — five to ten lawsuits each day.  Instead, most people go about their days, swearing at the illegal and thoughtless barriers, but without the time or resources to file those tens and eventually hundreds of lawsuits.  A brave and energetic few take the time to bring the lawsuits that remain necessary — twenty years after the effective date of the ADA’s architectural provisions and thirty years after California’s — to achieve a modicum of compliance.  For their trouble, these people are dubbed — in the press and in court — “serial litigators.”

The Ninth Circuit — the court with appellate authority over the Yates court — has recognized the role of these brave and energetic people in enforcing the law:

Courts must tread carefully before construing a Disability Act plaintiff’s history of litigation against him. As we have noted more than once, “[f]or the [Disabilities Act] to yield its promise of equal access for the disabled, it may indeed be necessary and desirable for committed individuals to bring serial litigation advancing the time when public accommodations will be compliant with the [Disabilities Act].” We must therefore be “particularly cautious” regarding “credibility determinations that rely on a plaintiff’s past [Disabilities Act] litigation.”

Antoninetti v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., 643 F.3d 1165, 1175 (9th Cir. 2010) (internal cites omitted; emphasis — though not nearly enough — added).   One of the cites I pulled out to make that quote more readable was Sam Bagenstos’s excellent article The Perversity of Limited Civil Rights Remedies: The Case of “Abusive” ADA Litigation, 54 UCLA L.Rev. 1 (2006).

So despite the fact that the Ninth Circuit has instructed courts to be particularly cautious about credibility determinations relying on past litigation, the Yates judge — without citing Antoninetti — holds that

Plaintiff’s  filing  of  well  over  a  hundred  disability  lawsuits  in  which  he  alleges  identical injuries bears directly upon his credibility.  . . . Plaintiff’s  alleged  scheme  to  generate  income  through  the  serial  filing  of  lawsuits  in  an  effort  to  extract  settlements  from businesses, may, in fact, be probative of his credibility.

More than simply disregarding controlling precedent, this decision has the very immediate and apparently intended effect of converting Mr. Yates from a real, live person who navigates his day to day world  in a wheelchair to a greedy serial litigant, judged on the fact that he has filed other complaints, the legitimacy of which he will likely not be able to prove before the jury.  (This question is not addressed in the decision, but my strong guess is that the defendant will be allowed to show the fact of hundreds of lawsuits, while the plaintiff will not be permitted to show that, in each one, the facility in question was indeed out of compliance.  That would, in essence, require hundreds of mini-trials within this single trial.)

On another level — about which I’ll write more later, as I have to get back to the other outrages on my desk — this is part of the broader scheme on the part of the business world to spin the fact that — 20-30 years after the federal and state standards took effect — there is still massive noncompliance.  When you’re really really wrong, accuse the other guy of “serial litigation” to correct your many many failures.

“Feds Probe Denver for Violating Deaf Prisoner Rights” – what we’re up to at FoxRob World Headquarters

The Colorado Independent has an article up about our Scott case.  The journalist had previously written about our Ulibarri case, and was thus able to put Mr. Scott’s situation in this astonishing perspective:

Scott isn’t the first deaf prisoner whose disability has gone ignored by Denver’s jail. Even as the city failed to provide Scott with an interpreter, it was defending itself against a lawsuit brought on behalf of three other deaf prisoners – one of whom hanged himself in his cell. Shawn Vigil spent a month in jail without an interpreter before his suicide in 2005. The Sheriff’s Department knew Vigil was deaf but apparently didn’t take note that he was functionally illiterate and unable to understand a question on his intake form asking if he needed accommodations for his disability.

We’re hoping this lawsuit will finally get some effective policies in place for deaf people detained or incarcerated by the City and County of Denver.