ARIA – A Brief Introduction

Since working on video accessibility, I have felt rather inadequate not knowing exactly how general Web accessibility works, in particular ARIA. I have been pointed at the W3C WAI-ARIA primer, best practices, and WD specification, but found them almost impossible to read.

If you are looking for a document that gets right to the point, I can recommend Opera’s Introduction to WAI ARIA. It tells you what attributes there are and how to use them. More in-depth information is available in the W3C WAI-ARIA best practices. Here’s my little summary of what I learnt.

Getting straight to the point: ARIA mostly cares about giving screen control to the keyboard (away from the mouse) and about exposing semantic information, such that vision-impaired people have a way to interact with Web content and screen readers can read out useful information.

Basic keys
The basic keys in use for accessibility are the tab/shift+tab, arrow, enter, space and escape keys.

Keyboard Focus: tabbing
Normal tabbing includes form controls and anchors. This can be overruled with the tabindex attribute.

Adding a tabindex=0 to an element adds the element to the tab order in which it appears in the document. Adding a tabindex out of [1;32767] you can place any element into a desired order – lowest numbers first.

Adding a tabindex=-1 to an element removes it from tabbing order, but you can still get keyboard focus onto it through javascript, e.g. for the subelements of a menu. The aria-activedescendant attribute can tell which is active in a list of descendants.

Navigation Landmarks: roles
Screenreaders have a problem with expressing what the functionality of elements is – normally they can only read out the name of the element.

This is where the role attribute comes in. It provides semantic meaning, e.g. “slider” instead of “input” element.

ARIA has a large number of pre-defined roles. They are listed in the spec – each role has additional attributes to provide more assistive information – mostly state information on the particular element.

Live updated content: aria-live
When data is updated somewhere on screen, often assistive technology doesn’t get to know about it.

Regions that are marked with the aria-live attribute will be read out even if the user is focused on another part of the screen at that point.

Form input: aria-reqired
For screen readers it is not obvious if a form element’s entry is a required or optional entry. Add an aria-required attribute to the form entry element and your screen reader will tell you.

Labels and descriptions: aria-labelledby / aria-describedby
Most often the description or label for a page area sits already elsewhere on screen, but with no obivous relationship to an element other than visible neighbourship.

A screenreader can be told about the relationship by using the aria-labelledby / aria-describedby attributes, which allow to link to such an area through that area’s id attribute.

Is that all?
Yes, I think that’s essentially all. It’s not particularly difficult, but it has a high impact on accessibility. I hope your take-away is as big as mine!

BTW: WAI ARIA is written for good old HTML4, not HTML5. However, there are synchronisation activities under way and WAI ARIA attributes will still be relevant to HTML5. Some of the roles will become unnecessary with the new elements available in HTML5 – see a draft mapping of HTML5 elements to ARIA implicit roles in Henry’s excellent document, but it seems the tabbing order, live regions, and the role attribute are here to stay.

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