[whatwg] The IMG element, proposing a CAPTION attribute

Jeff Seager Jeff.Seager at wvdrs.org
Thu Nov 9 11:57:19 PST 2006

In response to the standards now being considered, I'm in favor of
allowing percentages for the WIDTH attribute. In my own work, I've tried
first to create a flexible layout that is (in roughly equal parts)
semantically correct, scalable and accessible. Scalable graphic elements
have been part of my effort, an example of which can be seen at

It's a start toward developing something as universally accessible and
standards-compliant as I know how to do. Those are my highest
priorities, along with actually delivering the content to the end user.
I've tested this in Firefox/Mozilla, IE5/IE6, Amaya, Lynx, JAWS and
Window Eyes. Blind users report good usability, though I continue to
look for ways to streamline and improve usability for all. I'm hoping
this scalable layout may be even more useful as support increases for
scalable vector graphics. Right now it's probably optimal for
resolutions between 640x480 and 1280x1024.

What's clearly missing from the IMG specification is an appropriate
means for pairing each picture or graphic with a caption. Neither ALT
nor LONGDESC is appropriate for this. My current solution, borrowed from
Darren Brierton of Vancouver
xhtml/), is to embed the image as the DT in a definition list, with the
caption as the DD. Semantically, this makes sense because the caption
does in fact "define" the image by adding both meaning and context for
visual and non-visual users. But assumptions have already been made in
the specifications about the nature of a definition list, and captioning
was not among those assumptions, so it's a little clunky to bend the
rules like this.

A better way would be to semantically attach the caption or cutline to
the image itself, so its display is paired naturally. In this way, the
width of the cutline would be dictated (unless overruled in the
stylesheet) by the width of the image. I'm suggesting that CAPTION be
adopted as a new attribute of the IMG element, as it is already for the
TABLE element.

I come from a journalism background, and I learned layout and design in
print publishing. I respect the differences in these media, but the
time-honored use of captions for pictures seems like a tradition that
should carry over from print into pixels. Among all literate people, I
believe there is a longstanding expectation that pictures are
accompanied by meaningful descriptions (usually below the image, but
often to one side). The absence of image captioning seems to me to be an
oversight, or at least an overlooked possibility, in the HTML/XHTML
standards. As I was taught, a proper caption should not describe the
picture (as ALT should), but complement or elucidate the information
presented by the graphic.

I've been frustrated many times as I found that the techniques I learned
for HTML had since been deprecated. But having been edited most of my
life, I've appreciated the reason each of those specs was made obsolete.
XHTML and CSS have given us huge improvements. The requirement to
separate style from content is a benefit to me and to people with
disabilities for whom I design. If people want to add "cool"
functionality to the specifications, that's OK with me. I just think we
need to get some of the basics refined first.

Jeff Seager
public information specialist
West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services
Jeff.Seager at wvdrs.org

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