[html5] Banishing longdesc?

Sailesh Panchang spanchang02 at yahoo.com
Thu Aug 12 13:30:27 PDT 2010

The recent decision to banish the longdesc attribute from HTML [1] spurred  me to write this. The argument that won the day it seems was "there are no good examples" of longdesc in use.
Similar arguments were made  by those who opposed the American with Disabilities Act: no wheelchair users  come into my library so why should I make it accessible?

Even today authors / developers fail to  code forms and data tables as they should be coded with proper accessibility markup. And there are countless such forms and tables out there. So why not banish the FORM and TABLE element?

The problem is most developers / authors do not know what AT is, how AT works, how a blind guy navigates a table, what non-visual access is, what  audio user interface is. So obviously you cannot expect them to write imaginative and helpful text alternatives. As alt is required for every img and there has been a lot of guidance on this subject one does come across pages  with passable / good alt values. Unfortunately authors / developers are not  aware  on the use of longdesc: when it is needed and how to write one. When told to include the description for a chart using the longdesc, developers  do not create an htm file but  enclose the description within quotes ... like the alt value. Or they simply duplicate the alt text within an htm file.   
Just  a few days ago I saw a page on which every image had an alt and a longdesc ...  even image links had a longdesc. It only demonstrates that the author / developer does not know how to use the attribute and not that the attribute is flawed.
Sometimes we see tabular content marked up with the PRE element and not the TABLE element. So should PRE be banned? PRE has its uses and any element when misused or used incorrectly  creates an accessibility problem. Like the HTML 5 list of participants in good standing page! It uses a definition list to list participants. And a separate DL element for each participant. Maybe DL should be banned.
On the other hand,  I applaud the HTML 5 draft for saying do not use tables for layout and not to use empty rows / columns within data tables.
So what is needed is more education and outreach  on the proper use of longdesc. So do not banish it.
Sailesh Panchang
Accessibility Services Lead
Centreville VA

* [1] http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/public-html/2010Aug/att-0112/issue-30-decision.html


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