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alt text subtleties
From: Carol Foster
Date: Jul 16, 2001 2:54PM
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Apologies if this has been discussed before -- I am new to the list, and
I got an error message when I tried to search the archives.
Here are some guidelines we are currently leaning towards using for some
issues that have arisen about alt text for images, along with related
1. We are starting to use brackets  around alt text, as is done on
the Bobby site and some others. This helps a lot in lynx, which runs
alt text and regular text together in a way that can be very confusing.
It could be really annoying in screen readers though. In JAWS the
punctuation can be turned off. Does anyone know if this is a common way
to use JAWS (with punctuation turned off), or if this can be done in
other screen readers? How do others handle this apparent conflict
between lynx and screen readers?
2. "spacer" versus alt="" versus alt=" ": Here there may be conflicts
between what's best for screen reader users and what's best for sighted
Web users who do not download images. We use "spacer" or "filler" if an
image is a spacer or filler and it is visible to a sighted person who
surfs the Web without downloading images. This is because alt="" looks
the same as no alt text in that case. If an image is a spacer or filler
that is so small a sighted surfer is not likely to notice it (when not
downloading images) then we use alt="". Do you think sighted people
understand what the blank box that shows up for alt=" " means?
The only time we've used alt=" " was for some little images used to
round out some corners. They were not really spacers though they did
not carry very meaningful meaningful information. They did show up when
not downloading images. It seemed too complicated to explain what they
were in alt text, so we hope that the alt=" " will convey that no one is
So, should we use alt=" " for all of those spacers and fillers? I
believe WebAIM suggests using alt="", but then I am afraid that, as
mentioned above, sighted Web users who do not download images will think
they are missing something. Of course "filler" and "spacer" can be
annoying for screen reader users, but they do convey some information.
Finally, I believe I saw on the WAI site that it was OK to use alt=" ",
and recently someone posted a reference to the WAI site that addressed
alt="", but I am not able to find those now. Does anyone have those
Carol Foster, Web Developer
University Information Systems
University of Massachusetts, President's Office
mailto: <EMAIL REMOVED>