How a scary chart lost its bite

I encountered a graph recently that presented an interesting accessibility fail (and challenge). The graph was part of a blog posting on NPR’s Planet Money titled, “The Scariest Jobs Chart Ever isn’t Scary Enough.” Jacob Goldstein, the author, also calls the graph, “one of the defining graphs of our time.” Sounds pretty exciting!

Alt txt: Take 1

Well, if the reader is blind or low vision and reading with a screenreader, this is the alternative text that describes the graph, “Jobs lost and gained in postwar recessions.” Well, that’s not very exciting. The text of the blog post provides very little additional information about the graph, other than “It tracks the job market in every U.S. recession and recovery since WWII — and it shows just how brutal the the past few years have been.”

Alt txt: Take 2

The graph is one of those that gets posted and reposted, so I followed its path to see if its previous iterations were any more successful in terms of accessibility. Business Insider posted the graph with the following alt text, “chart of the day, the scariest jobs chart ever, january 2013.” Again, not terribly informative. The brief article surrounding the graph provides a bit more context with a quote from Bill McBride from Calculated Risk, the blog which originated the graph:

“This shows the depth of the recent employment recession – worse than any other post-war recession – and the relatively slow recovery due to the lingering effects of the housing bust and financial crisis”

Alt txt: Take 3

Calculated Risk uses the following alt text, “Percent Job Losses During Recessions.” The main text of the blog describes the graph a bit further:

The fourth graph shows the job losses from the start of the employment recession, in percentage terms, compared to previous post WWII recessions. The dotted line is ex-Census hiring. This shows the depth of the recent employment recession – worse than any other post-war recession – and the relatively slow recovery due to the lingering effects of the housing bust and financial crisis.

One More Try

None of these options provides an effective description of the graph’s basic content. We know that the graph shows that the current recession has had the slowest recovery of any recession post WWII, but we don’t have a sense of the scope of that recovery or how it compares with previous recessions. The descriptions certainly don’t capture what makes this graph the “scariest job chart ever.”
So, how to describe this graph? Following NCAM’s Guidelines for Describing Stem Images, I came up with this description:

The figure is entitled Percent Job Losses in Post WWII Recessions. There are eleven lines on the graph, representing the following employment recession years: 1948, 1953, 1957, 1960, 1969, 1974, 1980, 1981, 1990, 2001, 2007 (Current Employment Recession).

 The vertical axis is labeled “Percent Job Losses Relative to Peak Employment Month,” beginning with -7.0% to 1.0% in increments of 1.

The horizontal axis is labeled “Number of Months After Peak Employment,” beginning at 0 to 70 in increments of 2.

In the graph, the current employment recession line (2007) drops steadily from 0.0% to approximately 6.4% at 25 months. The line then begins a slow incline, nearly up to 2.0% at 61 months. There is a small peak at 28 months, but it is corrected for with a dotted line indicating ex-Census hiring.

The other 10 recession lines are clustered together with steep drops and inclines between 0.0%-5.0% and 0-30 months.  The line for 2001 extends to 48 months, but only falls to 2.0% job loss.

[NOTE: NCAM also recommends presenting graphs as data tables, a simple deconstruction that allows the data to speak for itself. I attempted to produce a table from this data, but it got a little messy given the graph’s complexity.]

What do you think?

Now that I’ve attempted a fuller description, I’ll share the image. For alt txt, I’ve used the graph title: “Percent Job Losses in Post WWII Recessions.” In a document, I would use this in connection with the previous long description on a separate, linked page.

Percent Job Losses in Post WWII Recessions

This is my attempt at dealing with this complex image, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about what might make this description more effective. I think the simple alt text and the long description would work very well together to make the original documents more accessible. I do like the idea, however, of incorporating a long description into the main content of a document. The description I created could benefit from some adjustments for this purpose, specifically a little less formality. And even though my description is functional, it misses some of the drama and intensity of the graph.

This graph, as currently presented on the web, is a clear accessibility fail but it also offers and interesting challenge/ opportunity. How can we use long descriptions to not only convey basic information about an image, but also the tone of the image? What strategies would you use to convey the “scary” aspect of this graph?

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