How to Use ARIA for Web Accessibility

Webpages and applications are designed to solve all different tasks. They need to give web developers the creativity and ability to solve all different types of problems, while still being intuitive and accessible for web users. This becomes more of a challenge, however, if you use the web differently than others. If, for example, you use a screen reader instead of a visual display, the construction behind the page becomes much more important than the appearance. This is where Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) come in. In this blog post, we’ll explain the basics of ARIA for web accessibility.

How to Use ARIA for Web Accessibility

WAI-ARIA Basics

WAI-ARIA was developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WAI-ARIA, or ARIA for short, is a set of markup extensions which are meant to provide additional description or meaning to elements within the site or application. ARIA attributes are used in websites and webpages, blogs, games, social media, and much more. For the purpose of this blog post, we’ll explain how ARIA attributes are used to improve accessibility for websites.

Not all websites use or need to use ARIA attributes to be accessible. In fact, ARIA attributes are intended to be used only when a part or function of a site is difficult to use or unclear with a screen reader or assistive technology. Many of the most common elements you’ll see in modern websites today are already accessible, and don’t need additional ARIA attributes. However, if you have tested your site and it isn’t accessible, ARIA may offer solutions to fix it.

Since the web is so vast and there are so many different ways that information and content may be displayed, ARIA must be versatile, with the ability to solve many different accessibility issues. To help organize ARIA solutions, they are mainly divided into three subsections: roles, states, and properties. We’ll describe each one, and what it does, in more detail below. For a more in-depth look into ARIA functions and organization, see the WAI-ARIA 1.1 document.

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ARIA Roles

ARIA roles are described using role= in your website code. For example, the navigation menu of your site might use role="navigation", or a search bar might use role="search". On the outside, to users looking at your site, nothing changes by using an ARIA role markup extension, and all elements function the same way. To users with assistive technology, however, roles can provide extra meaning and usability to an important area of the site. Roles allow a screen reader to easily convey what the element is supposed to do, what it means, and allow the user to more easily interact with it when needed. These are not the only types of ARIA roles used for website accessibility, but they are some of the most common.

  • Landmark roles: these help users navigate websites more easily when using screen readers and other assistive technology (AT). These include role="navigation", which is used to highlight groups of links used to click around the site, or role="form" for showing where a user might input some information, like a contact form.
  • Widget roles: these provide more clarity about what a part of the website is supposed to do, and make it easier to interact with. One widget role is role="button", which shows what an element is and when it should be clicked. Another is role="progressbar", which shows that an element is displaying the progress of a task.
  • Live region roles: these show that an element is dynamic and changes based on certain criteria. For example, role="alert" triggers a message, like error messages. Another live region role is role="timer" which might be used to show that a user has a limited time before being automatically logged out, or that a deal is ending soon.

ARIA Properties

While roles describe what an element does or what function it is meant to perform, ARIA properties describe more about what the element is. ARIA properties and roles are often used together, as a role might describe the function of an element and a property might describe one part of the element. Most of the time, though not always, ARIA properties do not change as a user clicks or interacts with a site, while ARIA states do. Since they are used in similar ways, ARIA states and properties are often collectively called ARIA attributes. Here are some common types of ARIA properties you might see on a website:

  • Widget properties: these generally describe one part of a widget and give it additional meaning, so the widget might be more useful. For example aria-required="true" used with an input element would indicate that the element must be filled in for the next step to continue.
  • Live region properties: these describe how live regions in a site update and how a screen reader interacts with them. For example, aria-live="polite" would inform the user that the live region has changed, but would not interrupt a task, while aria-live="assertive" would be used only for live updates that are essential to the user experience, as the screen reader would interrupt the task to read these.
  • Relationship properties: these describe when two or more elements share an important relationship, such as labels, controls, or descriptions, among others. For example, aria-labelledby="first name" used with a form input would clearly show a screen reader and a user what the input is.

ARIA States

ARIA states are very similar to properties. The key difference is that ARIA states indicate change. ARIA states are most useful with live regions, a part of a site that regularly updates, or with alerts, which notify users of important information. The following are common types of ARIA states used for web accessibility:

  • Widget states: Widget states are very similar to widget properties, except they can be changed with a user’s action. For example, the ARIA state aria-expanded="true" would show that a box, tree, table, or another element is expandable, and the current state is expanded.
  • Live region states: Live region states are used in conjunction with live region properties to show users what these parts of websites are doing. The state aria-busy="true" shows that an area is in the process of updating.

ARIA are meant to make your site more accessible, and help you overcome accessibility obstacles within your site. Some ARIA attributes and roles are easy to implement, while others will require some more coding knowledge. Remember that ARIA is meant to help your web accessibility, and you may not need it. If you have an accessibility issue that is restricting important content or functionality from your site, a web developer may be the best option to help you find the right solution with ARIA tags.