Text descriptions and emotion rich images
This article was first posted in 2007 on the eAccess blog, now available courtesy of the Internet Archive. Three years later and I still believe that emotion rich images are important to blind people, particularly those who once had sight (and that's most of us). Results from the third WebAIM screen reader survey suggest I'm not alone, so I'm reposting the article here to encourage the debate to continue.
So just what is a decorative image? It seems to me that one person’s eye candy is another person’s emotional link to a website.
For some, decorative images are those horizontal rules, bullets and other forms of minor clipart we find sprinkled around the web. For others, the term is wider ranging. It includes more content rich images such as photos and artwork.
So, you might ask, what’s the problem with this varied point of view? The answer is simple. Alt texts.
If you Google for the term “decorative image + alt texts”, you’ll come across countless sites that suggest that a decorative image be given a null alt text. It’s possible that we can all agree that for minor forms of clipart, a null alt text will do nicely. But it gets a little more difficult when it comes to more complex images.
I’m not talking about diagrams, blueprints or other information rich images. There’s no argument that they should always carry an alt text, possibly even a long description. I mean the vibrant, emotion rich images that provide a website with a sense of atmosphere.
It’s sometimes argued that providing such images with descriptive alt texts provides too much “noise” for a screen reader user. If we screen reader users stopped to listen to every alt text, every time we came across an image, then this assumption would probably be right. But I’ll let you into a secret. We won’t.
Like sighted users, we’ll skip around the content of the page until we find something that interests us. If the first few syllables of an alt text sound promising, we’ll pause to read. If they don’t, we’ll move on to the next element on the page. Also like sighted users, we’re often likely to pause on something unimportant, but which captures our imagination.
A good alt text can conjure up wonderfully stimulating mental images. A friendly smile is the same in print, photo or wax crayon. Whether you listen to an image or see it, the emotional response is the key factor, so why should we recommend that these emotion rich images should be given a null alt text and hidden from screen reader users?
Perhaps it’s time we introduced another group of images: Emotion rich images and encouraged the practice of providing descriptive alt texts for them. If people don’t want to listen to the alt text, they won’t. If people don’t want to pause and look at the image, they won’t. In either case, it’s good to have the choice.