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@michael: You’ve made a number of points – most of which I understand your perspective on. A couple of points (forgive the point form – its not meant to be abrupt, even if it comes across that way):
1. _“Does the copy convey the message well enough without additional visual support?”, and if the copy is lacking, then in my opinion the copy is bad, not the code”_ I take your point, but would suggest that this is not an either or scenario. I would suggest that the most effective presentation of the “message” is through both the copy and the visuals.
2. You state that the real question is _“When is an image a piece of content that needs to be accessible?”_ With all due respect, the only answer to that question is “it depends.” I would much rather developers ask themselves the question: “How can I communicate this message in an accessible way?” That is the question that I want people to ask themselves when they are building web sites. By providing the examples that I did, I wanted to look at some alternatives that make an improvement accessibility-wise.
As you say “there are many ways to code it,” and I’ll be happy if people consider different options instead of automatically assuming that a CSS background image will do.