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Reading Images: A New Layer

By Sheila MajumdarBridget O'Carroll

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When we first developed Coyote to enable web users who are blind or have low vision to “see” images on the web, we didn’t anticipate just how valuable this layer of description would be for showing all web users a new way to approach artworks and images on our website. As part of a recent web update, we unveiled a new feature that allows sighted visitors to view these descriptions as well. On tablets and desktops, you can activate the visible Coyote layer by clicking “Image Descriptions” underneath the menu on the left.

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Over the past months, our many volunteer contributors have been carefully crafting short (alt) and long texts for the thousands of images on our site that are currently invisible to screen readers. In sharing these descriptions with sighted users to the MCA website, we hope that it brings more awareness to the issues of accessibility on the web and highlights the benefits of description, especially for artworks.

With so many people helping with this project, occasionally multiple descriptions are submitted for the same image. Instances like these revealed the subjectivity of visual experience and inspired us to ask these authors to join us in describing images as a group. These workshops surfaced numerous questions about the nature of describing—invaluable feedback as we continue to refine a guide of best practices.

We are sharing one of our descriptions by multiple authors. The long and alt texts for Laylah Ali's Untitled (Greenheads), 1999, are, we hope, the first of many creative collaborations to come.

A set of four scenes features 21 green-headed, masked figures with skinny brown limbs. They engage in sinister acts with belts.
  1. Long This illustration features 21 humanoid figures split between two central panels that are short and stacked on top of each other and two long vertical panels on either side. The characters have thin, brown arms and big, round, teal heads, and in the outer panels, they wear blue tank tops and black bandit masks. In the left panel, three figures appear to hang from the top of the frame by their waists. The outer two dangle belts and the one in the middle wears a belt. They hang over three figures at the bottom, cut off at the torso, who reach toward the belts. The far right panel has a similar scene, with three figures hanging from the top and reaching up from the bottom. This time, the outer two at the bottom hold belts while the center figure reaches toward the figure above, who now dangles a belt. It appears to be a before-and-after sequence. The top central panel shows two figures wearing sleeveless belted leotards, black bandit masks, and white surgical masks. They both carry smaller, masked characters with gaping mouths and belts around their necks. The bottom central panel shows five distressed figures wearing pale blue shrouds and black bandit masks.
Laylah Ali, American, b. 1968
Untitled (Greenheads), 1999
Gouache on paper
9 3/16 × 14 5/16 in. (23.8 × 37.1 cm)
Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, The William B. Cook Memorial Fund, 1999.58
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
Green Space, Common Space