Making Websites Accessible: Adventures in Alt Text with the Amon Carter Museum of American Art


Michelle Padilla and Peggy Speir explain to MuseumNext how their museum, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, has expanded its DEAI (Disability, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion) work by conducting a large-scale alt text program to better serve the community.

Like many museums and cultural institutions, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art has made a concerted effort in recent years to develop an online experience that is accessible and inclusive. And at the heart of this project is a special focus on alternative text that makes for a more effective digital presence.

This initiative, which has so far updated more than 500 art objects with alt text, will expand over time to include thousands of the museum’s most interesting and notable pieces. The goal of the project is not only to meet the minimum requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), but also to provide a comprehensive solution for museum audiences.

Implementation of this initiative began in early 2022 when the Museum’s Digital Content Strategist, Michelle Padilla, and Accessibility Programs and Resources Manager, Peggy Speir, researched, wrote, and planned the inclusion of alt text in much of the non-content of the museum Museums began -collection paintings.

Michelle explains: “Our website was rebuilt in September 2019 and the expansion work will take place until the end of 2021, with a clear focus on accessibility and mobile-first. Peggy and I were tasked with implementing an alt text plan in early 2022. The museum had been focusing on accessibility for in-person visits for some time and it was about time we focused on online accessibility as well.”

Peggy adds, “Accessibility is certainly something we’ve put a lot of emphasis on for a number of years, but at the start of the pandemic we really pushed to improve that.” For example, we started mandating all videos with closed captions. So we started creating our visual descriptions and accessibility tools online with care.”

Image from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art website

To compile the catalog of descriptions for the first 500 artworks in the pilot program, Peggy and Michelle set out to assemble a team of writers to be responsible for providing the project’s content.

A rigorous process was established involving writers, editors, technical support and evaluation to ensure that the first 500 pieces of writing met required standards. Peggy says:

“We have a strong group of authors – some of them already had expertise in the field, others had no art history background. We knew this could actually be very helpful when writing alt text as it would tend to describe artworks in simpler, less technical terms.”

Achieve accessibility with appropriate expertise

A key aspect of the museum’s accessibility program was to bring in the support of external experts – organizations able to identify best practices and present ideas that could lead to more effective user engagement. This included working with community partners to run tests and get feedback.

One of those partners was Lighthouse for the Blind – a local organization that works to help people with and without sight. says Peggy

“We wanted to work with them because we wanted insight into what our end users need for the best online experience.

“They shared with us what they knew about how Readers could be used and most importantly, what resonated with people. We were very aware that the language used by those with an art history background might be very different from the language that is most beneficial to, say, a visually impaired audience.”

Peggy explains that through her work with Lighthouse for the Blind, live training was developed to help the writing team create effective content. The training session included discussions on the pros and cons of different terms and approaches through a constructive critique session.

Both Michelle and Peggy also point out that they gained a lot of information by researching what other museums and cultural institutions are doing in their accessibility programs. Michelle says:

“We took a lot of inspiration and guidance from artists like Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I also looked beyond the museum industry for information on how alternative text could be developed and applied.

“We realized we had to be decisive, make decisions, and just be aware that we might not get it right the first time.” But the beauty of the internet is that we have the power to make things happen change by learning.”

The challenges of description in alternative texts

Michelle goes deeper into the mechanics of the project and points out that one of the most difficult aspects of the project and any descriptive initiative is how to approach certain issues and problems.

“For example, how do you adequately describe images of people of different races and ethnicities for people with visual impairments?” she says. “How do you describe artworks with disturbing elements? And how do you explain a very abstract work of art with unusual patterns and colors?”

Peggy adds, “We created a style guide to give our writers a helpful orientation on how we agreed to handle certain terms or present numbers. It certainly helped that we already had a strong reputation as an institution for our accessibility work and that discussions of some of the challenges were not entirely new or unfamiliar to our team.”

The team recognizes the importance of acknowledging sticking points and being open on sensitive issues that require internal and external guidance.

Michelle and Peggy are currently preparing for the next phase of alt text development. They say there are some clear areas where they want to provide more guidance and support to their writing team — particularly in areas like abstract art and racial description.

“Overall, I think we’ve learned the importance of being as precise as possible,” explains Michelle. “Alternative text should be short and therefore it is necessary to use descriptive words very carefully.”

Peggy adds, “I think the training and testing process of our approach has been invaluable. Over time you almost start to see things in the alt text. You will get better at being precise and concise.”

These insights will help advance Carter’s team in bringing this project to life in thousands of parts for years to come.

Learn more about how museums are using the latest strategies, technology and tools to improve their work for their audiences and communities at May’s Summit meeting of digital museums.

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