The holy wars of the humble alt

Should the HTML5 specification require ALT attributes for all IMG tags? The raging debates on the public-html list seem endless. But let's see if we can get an overview..

  • Requiring ALT attributes hurts accessibility when tools or people insert empty or silly ALT attributes for significant images to pass validation.
  • Requiring ALT attributes helps accessibility when people educate themselves due to validation warnings and add useful ALT-contents, and when companies have to use ALT correctly due to legal threats.

Which effect is stronger and more valuable? This – in a nutshell – is what the ALT warriors should be discussing and researching. For example, there is some research here that indicates even low quality ALT text can be more helpful than none.

There is an incredible amount of time being spent on largely irrelevant arguments – from both sides. For example

  • Mass uploading images (e.g. Flickr) means people don't have time to write ALT texts, so Flickr can't require users to do so.

    This is just a matter of how conscientious the user is. Flickr should have an optional "description for blind people" box, users who did not fill in details would cause Flickr to output invalid HTML without ALT. So non-conscientious users create invalid HTML – to me, that sounds like a fact of life, not a spec bug.

  • Future software may be able to analyse images automatically and provide alternative text if ALT is omitted.

    Yeah, I'll believe in this intelligent software when I see it – and in particular I find it hard to believe that such hyper-intelligent software can't be configured to generate ALT-text for ALL images regardless of supplied ALT.

  • Requiring ALT means blind users can not upload images they don't know the contents of.

    Um, and uploading images you don't know the contents of is a major use case? I sort of can't see the motivation of the user for doing that.

Then there is a lot of hot air and big egos or at least claims that other people have big egos, claims that whoever disagrees with you is arrogant and doesn't listen etc.. I admit that the quality of discussion on the public-html W3C list disappoints me.

The current spec text seems pretty good. I think that in the interest of getting rid of invisible meta data and user-targeted text in hidden attributes it might also say that ALT can be omitted if aria-describedby points to some element in the page.

Now please move on to the next topic..

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6 thoughts on “The holy wars of the humble alt

  1. Doesn't Flickr have a description/caption for photos like My Opera has for it's albums? That could be used for the ALT text, if available.

  2. re intelligent software: face-detecting software that automatically detects the people on photos is a new feature of Picasa 3. I'm not sure how well this works (yet), but that information could be used for automatically suppling alt tags, in the form of "Photo of Hallvord". And as that software only knows your friends and relatives, it only works on your machine while uploading. BTW: I'm all for requiring alt-tags – but the current spec is way too long, only a few nerds will actually read that and follow by that…

  3. I'm against the ALT requirement, personally. The Flickr example was especially appropriate for my reasoning. Like Flickr my sites are generally about visual things: Photography and videogames, for the most part, and – correct me if I'm wrong – but there aren't a lot of blind people who play video games. If they can see well enough to play games then they can see the images just fine. I think the accessibility goal is noble, and I encourage progress towards an accessible web, but (as I hope I successfully illustrated above) there are clearly sites where the blind won't be spending a lot of time, and penalizing those sites when they fail to cater to the blind strikes me as pig-headed adherence to a standard purely for the sake of it.Put another way, ALT attributes are good, enforcing them is not.

  4. Actually yeah, I kind of missed the point.It's sad, but hardly unusual, to see the discussion get so heated.After reading your page, Bruce, I found this quote nicely backing up my position:

    Responding, here, as a totally blind web content consumer and not as a member of the IBM Human Ability & Accessibility Center, you can put all of the alt tags on flickr that you desire – I’m still not going to visit it because photos are inheritly visual entities. For the dozen or so photos that have received thousands of views (and that, presumably, resemble the news broadcast rather than the private telephone call), 100 or 150 characters of alt text is not going to make the photo any more useful to me. Are we next going to suggest that all of the songs available on the web need closed caption so that deaf folks can enjoy them, too?

  5. I think it is silly to make a WCAG requirement a syntax requirement. Omission of alt should not be a syntax error, just raise a possible accessibility warning and point f.i. to WCAG. Making it a syntax requirement just leads to more useless alt-attributes whereas issuing pointers to accessibility recommendations might just have more (and better) affects.People should not be misled by validators; the W3C HTML validator right now just says: "this page is valid HTMLx! and here's a button you can put on your page!!!!1111oneoneone" whereas it simply isn't true (validity goes beyond syntax validation) and the whole idea of providing "W3C approved" buttons is just hilarious.

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