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Accessibility for the web - introduction to ARIA

ari_o profile image Arika O ・3 min read

In the last article, we talked about HTML5 and how important is for screen readers that we use semantic HTMLwhen writing code. Today we're going to look at ARIA, which can supplement markup so that widgets and interactions commonly used in our applications can be passed to assistive technologies. You've probably heard about it but what exactly is ARIA?

Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) is a set of attributes that define ways to make web content and web applications (especially those developed with JavaScript) more accessible to people with disabilities. (MDN)

In simpler terms, they are attributes which we add to out HTML tags. These attributes provide extra information about elements that are otherwise non-semantic and give screen readers a hard time when trying to translate them. An important point to make is that they do not replace HTML5 and they should only be used when semantic elements are not available to us. What do I mean by that? Let's build on an example:

WRONG

<header>
 <ul>
  <li>About</li>
  <li>Portfolio</li>
  <li>Contact</li>
 </ul>
</header>
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We have a navigation build with an unordered list, inside of a header. This has no meaning for a screen reader and it will read the list out-loud, without knowing we meant to convey a navigation menu (the user will hear something along the lines: list with there items).

BETTER

<header>
 <div role="navigation">
  <ul>
   <li>About</li>
   <li>Portfolio</li>
   <li>Contact</li>
  </ul>
 </div>
</header>
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We can make the code more accessible by using the "role" ARIA attribute. Now the screen user will know that it is reading a navigation (the user will hear something like: navigation with three items). Much better, right? But although our problem is solved, the solution is not quite right since HTML5 offers a nav semantic element, so if we want to implement the best way, we would write something like:

THE BEST

<header>
 <nav>
  <ul>
   <li>About</li>
   <li>Portfolio</li>
   <li>Contact</li>
  </ul>
 </nav>
</header>
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The effect will be identical for the user and he will hear the same translation. Of course, this is a very simplistic example of using an ARIA attribute so let's look at another one.

Let's implement a checkbox using the native input HTML element:

<label>
 <input type="checkbox">
 Agree with the terms and services
</label>
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When a screen reader encounters this code, it will tell the user that it's a checkbox, it will read the label and it will also announce the state of the checkbox (if it's checked or unchecked). But let's say we must implement a custom checkbox and we can't use the input element but the div one:

<div id="checkbox" checked>
 Agree with the terms and services
</div>
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A screen reader will give no indication to the user that this div is meant to be a checkbox. Best case scenario, it will read the text inside of the div but it won't say anything about the role of the element or what its state is (checked or unchecked). Notice I used the words role and state. We can make this code screen reader friendly by adding ARIA attributes that specify the role and the state of the element:

<div role="checkbox" aria-checked="true">
 Agree with the terms and services
</div>
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By adding the extra pieces of information to the div, the screen reader can now tell the user that it encountered a checked checkbox. Great, isn't it?

Other examples of role attributes are:

  • button
  • scrollbar
  • searchbox
  • etc

Other examples of state attributes are:

  • aria-disabled
  • aria-grabbed
  • aria-autocomplete
  • etc

The list of attributes is of course bigger than this and if you would like to learn more about ARIA, you can read this super comprehensive resource offered by W3C (World Wide Web Consortium).

Image source: energepic/ @energepic-com-27411 on Pexels

Discussion

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zwiastunsw profile image
Stefan Wajda


<ul role="navigation">

This is a very bad example. When you add role="navigation" to <ul>, you change the default role of <ul>.
This example should look like this:
<div role="navigation">
<ul>
<li>About</li>
<li>Portfolio</li>
<li>Contact</li>
</ul>
<div>

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ari_o profile image
Arika O Author

Are you referring to the rule of ARIA usages which says we shouldn't change the role of native elements? I modified the code, thx, good observation.

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zwiastunsw profile image
Stefan Wajda

Not only that! When you change the role of the <ul> element, the screenreader will not announce that this is a list of items, will not announce that it has 3 items :)

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adam_cyclones profile image
Adam Crockett

Tip: Use aria to style elements state, it's a no brainier. Aria is stateful, and if used correctly will encourage good accessibility plactices instead of using stateful classes .active which are meaningless.

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ari_o profile image
Arika O Author

Totally agree. I think I had this conversation on the last article (although here I was comparing the advantages of using HTML5 elements versus classes and ids).

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patarapolw profile image
Pacharapol Withayasakpunt

Kept me wonder, why not WAI-ARIA?

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ari_o profile image
Arika O Author

I used ARIA instead of WAI-ARIA just because the name is shorter. As far as I know, although the formal name for ARIA is Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA), both forms are accepted when talking about it.