Dave Woods - Freelance Web Design Warwickshire

Getting to grips with WAI-ARIA

I’ve been fairly busy recently and whilst I’ve heard about the introduction of WAI-ARIA, I’ve not really had chance to have a look at how these new guidelines will affect the way I build web pages. So today I decided to take the opportunity to sit down and at least get a basic understanding of what it actually is and how it aims to improve accessibility.

A good place to start if you don’t know what WAI-ARIA is about is the W3C’s WAI-ARIA Overview which quotes the following:

WAI-ARIA, the Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite, defines a way to make Web content and Web applications more accessible to people with disabilities. It especially helps with dynamic content and advanced user interface controls developed with Ajax, HTML, JavaScript, and related technologies.

Basically, whilst the WAI guidelines deal with accessibility for all types of users, the WAI-ARIA guidelines provide a much more focused way to ensure that users who are only able to interact by using assistive technology (whether that be screen readers or users that can only use a keyboard for example) can interact easily with dynamic websites. The example, the WAI-ARIA document gives is a dynamic collapsable tree structured menu:

For example, Rich Internet Applications developers can create a tree control in HTML using CSS and JavaScript even though HTML lacks a semantic element for that. A different element must be used, possibly a list element with display instructions to make it look and behave like a tree control. Assistive technology, however, must re-present the element in a different modality and the display instructions may not be applicable. The AT will present it as a list, which has very different display and interaction from a tree control, and the user may be unsuccessful at understanding and operating the control.

I’ve had a good read through the Working Draft and it is a lot to initially take in so I will have another couple of read’s through it before commenting further on how this will actually effect web developers.

If you only build websites using HTML and CSS then, from my initial understanding of the WAI-ARIA guidelines, I think it’s fair to say that you won’t be affected all that much. However, if you’re involved in building rich, interactive web applications using JavaScript and Ajax then it is highly likely that you’ll be needing to understand exactly how WAI-ARIA will affect you.

Peter Gasston has also put together some useful information on Beginning ARIA Mark-up which also explains how you can use CSS to style elements in browsers that support attribute selectors and is definitely worth a read.

Screen Reader Supporting WAI-ARIA

There’s a number of screen readers available on the market, the better ones usually come at considerable expense but I stumbled across a new screen reader that Roger Johansson reported on a week or so ago called NVDA.

It’s free and apparantly works with Firefox plus it also has support for WAI-ARIA. I’ve not had chance to test it yet but if you want to give it a try you can download the latestNVDA Development Snapshot. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts if you have taken it for a test drive.