alt in HTML5 Required? – to be or not to be

Posted on Thursday, 7 February 2008 by Steve Faulkner

There has been much discussion both within and outside of the W3C HTML5 Working Group about the HTML5 editor’s decision to make the alt attribute optional, to cover those cases where:

In certain rare cases, the image is simply a critical part of the content, and there might even be no alternative text available.

There has been (and is)Â opposition to this decision, some of those within the working group who question the decision, sought a formal response from the W3C Protocols and Formats Working Group (The PFWG looks at the formal Web technologies from an accessibility perspective). A formal response has now been submitted to the HTML5 working Group.

A summary of the response:

  1. By the principles, HTML5 wants to support accessibility
  2. By their charters, WAI groups (here WCAG) are the go-to
    experts in matters of accessibility
  3. WCAG requires @alt (WCAG1) or the function that in HTML4
    is provided by @alt (WCAG2) [editorial note -- add links]
  4. By the principles, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  5. Conclusion: barring the introduction of new, good
    reasons for a change, the failure of the HTML5 draft to make
    @alt on <img> an across-the-board requirement (even if sometimes
    it has the value of “”) is a bug
    .

 note: emphasis added.

There has not as yet been any feedback from the editor or other proponents of the decision to the formal response, but as it was only sent yesterday (6th of February), it’s early days yet.

Further Reading


About Steve Faulkner

Steve is the Senior Web Accessibility Consultant and Technical Director, TPG Europe. He joined The Paciello Group in 2006 and was previously a Senior Web Accessibility Consultant at Vision Australia. He is the creator and lead developer of the Web Accessibility Toolbar accessibility testing tool. Steve is a member of several groups, including the W3C HTML Working Group and the W3C Protocols and Formats Working Group. He is an editor of several specifications at the W3C including HTML 5.1, Using WAI-ARIA in HTML and HTML5: Techniques for providing useful text alternatives. He also develops and maintains HTML5accessibility

Comments

  1. This is certainly an issue that has been contested by many user groups.
    Decorative images have usually been assigned a null alt attribute. “Decorative” being determined by the designer. Focus testing has shown that most users would like to make that judgment for themselves except, of course, when the site relies heavily on “decorative images’ for effect only.
    Some sites go so far as providing audio description of their logo images.
    Removing the “alt” attribute requirement from the specification will only lead to a very slippery slope to the bad old days.
    Opinion comment follows:
    Personally, I feel that the W3C WG’s are too heavily influenced by the membership of corporate interests to be able to objectively recommend ANY changes to specifications, least of all, those that affect accessibility issues.
    There is no altruism in business, the market share and bottom line rule.

  2. IIRC, lynx used to display “Image” when there was an image in HTML but no alt attribute. Therefore I propose for this rare use case, like Flickr etc., where (1) an image is critical and should not be skipped over for blind users and (2) There is no possible way for the author of the document to know what sort of image will be displayed and (3) there is no way to get that information from the user who uploaded the image, then we should simply recommend alt=”Image”. Simple, isn’t it?

  3. Steve Buell wrote:

    Personally, I feel that the W3C WG’s are too heavily influenced by the membership of corporate interests to be able to objectively recommend ANY changes to specifications, least of all, those that affect accessibility issues.
    There is no altruism in business, the market share and bottom line rule.

    I understand the sentiment steve, but as the HTML working group is open to anyone, a diverse range of people can have a say in the development of HTML5. I encourage you (and anyone) to participate.. The general public can also comment on the recently published HTML5 Draft. Also there are checks and balances in place within the W3C; in relation to accessibility the WAI Protocols and Formats Working Group are active in ensuring that specifications take into account accessibility issues.

  4. G wrote:

    (3)there is no way to get that information from the user who uploaded the image, then we should simply recommend alt=”Image”. Simple, isn’t it?

    There have been a number of solutions proposed, such as the use of reserved values. Further investigation is needed. One point to note is that in many instances on photo sharing sites, the photos are link content. In these cases the recommended alt attribute value would be a description of the link’s target and/or the link’s function (if for example it is being used to show an enlarged view of an image). The one thing that is definitely not appropriate in these cases is to have no alt attribute.

  5. Steve Faulkner wrote:

    There have been a number of solutions proposed

    Reserved value for alt like alt=”_none” (with the underscore) for instances when automated tools do not allow for author supplied alt text. While it does not completely address the real problem (the image still is inaccessible to the non-sighted/non-visual UA), User Agents could be configured to deal with an expected value such as this consistently (as could Adaptive Technology), and equally important maintains the requirement of an alt value in an image. Will content authors continue to abuse this? Probably, but they will be making a conscious decision to ‘abuse’, rather than skate by their responsibility by pointing to a spec and saying “see, it’s allowed”.

    Thanks for linking to this. I guess my solution compared with _none only has the additional usefulness that it will work well with existing user agents and is time tested by one of the most successful text only user agents. As to the second use case you brought up, the photo site in question could just use alt="[Enlarge this image]" or whatever makes sense to them and already works. You’re definitely right though, there really is never an actual need to leave out alt just because an image is critical, not decorative, but is unknown. I suppose the HTML WG probably has already received a ton of good suggestions, and perhaps these use cases they’ve brought up aren’t the real problem they are trying to solve.

  6. Steve Buell, please cite your actual “focus testing.” I am pretty sure that the designer of a page knows what a decorate image is and isn’t. The designer put it there.

  7. It seems to goofy to require an alt tag…is there precedence? Are there other cases when how you write your code is legislated for the purpose of accessibility? I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

    What would it accomplish in the real world? Every CMS would automatically add alt=”” to any image that didn’t have an alt tag specified. If that only provided zero information, it would be bad, but it actually provides negative information, since it falsely implies that an automatically added alt=”” is equivalent to a manually added alt=””, which is not true.

    Of course there is a problem here that needs better solutions, but this isn’t the way to do it. Maybe there needs to be a massive (I hope) whitelist of sites that support “A” level accessibility, and that whitelist could be used in various ways. Or a blacklist of sites of whom better accessibility has been requested and denied. Maybe proper usage of longdesc should be outlined better (maybe it should only be a URL pointing to a flat text file with sentences about the image?).

    (aside: Or maybe there isn’t even a problem? I push for accessibility every place I can, but no one has ever asked us to improve areas that I know are deficient. Other than the Target lawsuit, I haven’t ever seen any major statement from organizations representing people with disabilities. Even as far as fixing accessibility, web developers are truly not sure what changes are actually helpful and which are just a waste of time. If this were a pressing issue, wouldn’t there be surveys and guidance?)

    I believe strongly in accessibility and I push for all improvements that clearly make sense – semantic HTML, alt tag usage, wisely-used skip links, well-chosen titles and link text, form labels, etc etc. But requiring alt tags does not make sense.

  8. Hi Dave,
    Dave wrote:

    It seems to goofy to require an alt tag…is there precedence?

    The alt attribute has been required since 1999 when the HTML 4.01 Specification was published:

    The alt attribute must be specified for the IMG and AREA elements.

    Dave wrote:

    If that only provided zero information, it would be bad, but it actually provides negative information, since it falsely implies that an automatically added alt=”” is equivalent to a manually added alt=””, which is not true.

    The decision in HTML5 to allow “critical images” to have no alt attribute leaves one in a similar situation. as there is no way to tell a “critical image” that had it’s alt attribute left off on purpose to signify that there is no suitable alt text available as against any other image for which the author has accidently missed an alt text or has simply not bothered.

    As I have written previously there are a number of solutions that have been proposed. I suggest that it would be fruitful for you to read up on the matter.

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