Quirks of HTML5 : the ALT tag

I attempt not to make tangents into jargonised techie / geek speak … today is pretty much the same except today I wish to ask you to indulge myself as I feel I need to rant a little about the forthcoming HTML5, and a particular Quirk.
Unsure what HTML5 is? I tried to write it down and explain a few times but I couldn’t so heres the best website I could find to explain it.

Looking at HTML 5 from an outside view (as a website owner or user, rather than a coder) you would be forgiven for thinking not much is going to change… a few modifications to make more things possible and to make the existing easier. To an extent you are correct, but on the other hand as a coder, I look at HTML 5 and see all the possibilities it holds for the web. New ways of doing things, ways of making things easier for everyone… HTML for me is a way of making the websites I create more accessible. And I can pretty much say I’m not alone in what I feel about HTML5.

However, over the past months I’ve began to look more and more around the syntax and documentation of HTML 5 (and yes I know its not been published or finalised yet fellow coders). Last week I stumbled upon something of a Quirk. The ALT tag is to be made “optional” rather than “mandatory”.

For non-coders:
Currently the ALT tag is considered to be mandatory for accessibility reasons. Ever been to a page and expected to see an image or graphic but you just get some text (generally the same type of thing as in a caption) in its place? Well that’s ALT text. But that’s not all it is used for. ALT means alternative, as the alternative it is used by “accessible” browsers such as JAWS and LYNX (which are text display browsers for the visually impaired) and were / are intended to describe what is in the image in simple terms. However this is not all they can be used for, search engines also use them for image searches as one of many methods of “seeing” what is in an image or graphic file.

Now, personally I don’t give a damn how it is to be considered and nor should you. The ALT tag should always be used regardless of its requirement as set out in the W3C recommendations. So if I am going to continue using it, and I believe (or hope) 99% of other current developers will …

Does it really matter?

The quick answer is Yes.

The reason this matters is because if the attribute becomes “optional” then it gives no reason for New and Upcoming developers to use the tag. Nor does it give reasons for schools, colleges or universities a reason to teach the importance of this tag.

But all this techie stuff isn’t what this rant is about… so here it is

If the ALT tag is no longer used then the web comes “visual only” and the right to accessible information and media for everyone is diminished and life on the internet becomes a whole lot harder for a good number of people. Accessibility is a right not some kind of reward given by society. Now I know the ALT tag doesn’t solve all the problems of the world, nor do I think it has ever been completely utilised by developers but the tag is a means to an end.

Maybe I’m looking at this through rose-tinted glasses in the belief the world should be perfect, and it never can be. No developer, no matter what they claim, will have used the ALT tag on every graphic they publish online (or even captioned them) … and most developers I know don’t come through university or anything like that. Web Design & Development is often a hobby and passion more than a job, and often that means we read around various blogs, look at other peoples code and learn from them. We read to be enlightened and enriched, we indulge our passion in design and development … so as long as that continues to happen maybe we’ve nothing to worry about. Through this enrichment process and learning curve I hope the ALT tag sticks with us, it does help… if only a little to make the world a bit of a better place.

Want to know more about accessibility of the web then take a look at some nicer W3C documents: WCAG2.0 and WAI.