There have been lots and lots of e-mail on the public-html mailing list about making the
alt attribute syntactically required in HTML5. At the core of this debate is on one hand using HTML5 validators to send a strong message about accessibility and on the other hand of avoiding a situation where a simplified and idealistic strong message leads to behavior that is counterproductive considering the goal of making the Web accessible. As a policy debate, it is similar to abstinence-only sex education debates.
A validator is a computer program and cannot tell if a textual alternative is appropriate for a given image in a given context. That's why accessibility checking needs to be done by a person. A person may use a software tool to make the checking easier, but trusting on fully automated software to determine whether a page is accessible is misguided.
Given this basic problem, a policy that insists on the
alt attribute always being present doesn’t necessarily lead to accessibility. In fact, considering that syntactic correctness and accessibility are different evaluation axes both in terms of computability and in terms of how HTML authors (other than accessibility advocates) tend to view things (judging from observations about the behavior of HTML authors who use validators), a policy that insists on the
alt attribute being always present will likely cause people to put the attribute in there but with inappropriate content. In particular, putting an empty
alt on images whose presence is important for understanding the context of other content is bad, because in that case the presence of those images is concealed from a non-graphical user. Also, a textual alternative that just says “image” is not an improvement over what, for example, Safari with VoiceOver says in the absence of
alt, but would be worse than a smarter client-side heuristic.
Furthermore, there is a very real case where a textual alternative simply isn’t available to the HTML generator: a user uploads photos to a content management system and refuses to supply textual alternatives at the same moment. HTML 4 didn’t account for this case. In fact, requiring
alt to under all circumstances assumes that markup is written by a person who knows what the images are at the time of writing markup. It doesn’t make sense to pretend that the case where the markup generator doesn’t have textual alternatives available doesn’t exist. The HTML 5 syntax needs to account for all use cases.
Expecting markup generators to knowingly emit markup that is not valid is not a winning proposition. Quoting me from 2006:
Authoring tools are judged by taking a page authored using the tool and running it through the W3C Validator or, presumably in the future, through an HTML5 conformance checker. Authoring tool makers who are capable of making their tool produce syntactically conforming documents will want to do so and minimize the chance that the users of their software tarnish the reputation of the tool in the eyes of people who use an automated test as a litmus test of authoring tool bogosity. (People who test tools that way will outnumber the people who make a more profound analysis due to the "validate, validate, validate" propaganda.)
To summarize: As a matter of principle, subjective checking or checking that is not applicable for all pages does not belong in the validation function. Practice is more important than principle, though. Baking the
alt requirement into the validation function would be bad when the user of the validation function wants a clean report on syntax but isn’t as concerned with accessibility. It is bad for accessibility when authors put the simplest value that silences the validator into the attribute in order to make the validation report look clean, since doing so gives user agents like Safari with VoiceOver less information to work with. That's why I think the requirement to have an
alt attribute present doesn’t belong in the validation function also as a practical matter.
It turns out, though, that some people think of validation as a first step toward accessibility, even though syntactic correctness and accessibility really are different evaluation axes. They expect a validator to help them flag images that are lacking a textual alternative. Moreover, the
alt issue seems to be taken as the single most important web accessibility issue with the rest of issues somewhere in the long tail. When there is a demand for validators to flag images without
alt, validators probably should meet the demand.
To this end, I have developed a new feature for Validator.nu: Image Report. This new feature is not part of the validation function. It also doesn’t do exactly want people are asking of the syntax definition in the long e-mail thread. (It is not a new idea for a validator user interface to offer tools that help a human perform an assessment about the page outside the validation function. For example, the W3C Validator has offered a “Show Document Outline” feature, which is also on file as a request for enhancement for Validator.nu.)
The new feature tries to address the issue of finding missing textual alternatives but it also seeks to address the issue of faulty textual alternatives. Furthermore, it seeks to address these in a way that doesn’t induce people to write bad textual alternatives in order to make the report look cleaner.
When you turn the feature on, it always lists all the images. There is no textual alternative you can fake to make the list look shorter. Instead, there are four categories and you can only change the category in which an image appears.
This has the benefit of removing the badge hunting problem: people trying to silence the validator without actually raising the quality of their page. However, it also has the benefit that the user can review the textual alternatives for appropriateness and the user can review that the right images have been marked as omitted from non-graphical presentation. Since this tool addresses more problems than simply making
alt required on the syntax level, I believe this solution is much better than furiously staying entrenched in the status quo of HTML 4 validation, fearing so much a step backwards as to being too afraid to explore steps forward.
Finally, it should be noted that this feature is, by necessity, itself inaccessible to people who cannot view bitmap images. Yet, I think it is legitimate for this feature to be implemented with an HTML user interface. Also, this feature itself is a case where the generator of the user interface markup has no knowledge of the content of the images it is presenting to the user. Hence, it is itself an example of omitting the
alt attribute. It would be truly ironic, if the syntax definition of HTML5 prevented Validator.nu from being self-validating.