The current “state” of WAI-ARIA adoption and its “role” in accessibility

March 2014 UPDATE 2014: WAI-ARIA 1.0 is a completed W3C Recommendation as of March, 2014. Check current status

The WAI-ARIA project began in the fall of 2006. ARIA stands for “Accessible Rich Internet Applications,” by which it means web-based applications using CSS and JavaScript to change page elements without reloading the page. ARIA provides a means for the changes to communicate with assistive technologies.

“…I worked with a web project manager who was unfamiliar with ARIA, …and ended up interviewing half a dozen upcoming young developers, none of whom had heard of it either! Had the Web Accessibility Initiative’s initiative failed, …was ARIA D.O.A.?”

It came to my attention at that time due to my involvement with a group of teacher educators at the Faculty of Education at York U, Toronto. I admit I wasn’t able to make a great deal of sense of it until they published a Primer and a guide on Authoring Practice in 2010, and even so it remains daunting. Yet I believe in ARIA and what it’s trying to do, and I know of no other meaningful solution in the works. So I was disappointed and somewhat baffled when at my job in 2011 I worked with a web project manager who was unfamiliar with ARIA, and then, in the course of the project, ended up interviewing half a dozen upcoming young developers, none of whom had heard of it either! Had the Web Accessibility Initiative’s initiative failed, …was ARIA DOA?

Jutta Treviranus is Director and Professor at the Inclusive Design Institute at OCAD University. She’s explained at length the many challenges faced by people with differing abilities even if they’re using assistive technology, which involve availability, cost and compatibility issues far more convoluted than many of us may imagine. I recently had the chance to ask her some questions about ARIA adoption, and she’s graciously allowed me  to share her answers (and they let my colleagues off the hook!).

Q: Based on the much broader sample group you have access to, what do you feel is the status of the ARIA standards in terms of understanding, adoption, and implementation?

 JT: ARIA adoption is proceeding quite well. While it’s not yet a household name for most web developers it is gradually making its way into the tools they use on a regular basis. Here’s how things stand:
1.       The technology spec: The W3C spec is still a Candidate Recommendation but nonetheless has been stable for several years.
2.       Browser support: Browser support is quite well advanced on desktops and is coming along on mobile so developers cannot use browser support as a reason to delay.
3.       Web UI Toolkits: Most web developers who create Rich Internet Applications do not do so for “scratch”. Instead they use UI toolkits such as JQueryUI, YUI (from Yahoo), DOJO Toolkit, Fluid Infusion, etc. …While DOJO, Fluid and YUI have had WAI-ARIA support, jQueryUI did not and it is the most popular by far However, version 1.9 has been released in Beta and it does make extensive use of WAI-ARIA.

Q: What are the consequences of not adopting it? How is it that some non-adopters I’ve seen say their sites are AA or even AAA accessible? Do you think they really are?

JT: It depends on the content. If the developer uses only plain HTML(and CSS) with proper semantics (e.g. marking up headers, list items, etc.), then they can create a site that is very accessible to people with visual disabilities who use screen readers to access their computers.

However, if they create a “Rich Internet Application” that makes use of JavaScript to manipulate HTML content (typically generic rectangular objects called DIVs) in richly interactive ways that HTML semantics can’t cope with (e.g. a clickable stock-ticker), then WAI-ARIA is the only option for making the site accessible.  Of course, as stated above, typically it is not common practice for such developers to add WAI-ARIA themselves. Instead, they should make use of Web UI Toolkits (such as those identified above) that have been designed with WAI-ARIA built-in.

So there you have it. I’ve used Infusion in the past. It’s based on jQuery and there’s always a bit of a lag between versions, but I’ve learned they’ve  passed 1.5.1 (1.6.1 as of this writing; (1.6.1 as of this writing; jQuery just released 1.8*) so I can use them again.

*UPDATED – now jQuery 1.9.1 or 2.0 with jQueryUI 1.10 2013-05-22: These things change quickly… best to check the jQuery and jQueryUI sites themselves.

If you know anything at all about ARIA you know my title contains some puns. ARIA’s current state is a W3C Candidate Recommendation and its role is the de facto standard of accessibility for AJAX-based web applications. If you do development it’s time to consider learning the concepts behind ARIA and to consider using a framework that has begun to implement it.

To get started I recommend the Overview. Or just start hacking these examples from OpenAjaxAlliance.

Thanks once again to Professor Treviranus.

Here’s a fine presentation, ‘An Introduction to WAI-ARIA‘ given by Dan Jackson, City University at the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2009, University of Essex, 28 – 30 July 2009.

These examples from Steve Faulkner, The Paciello Group take a before and after approach that also tells the story well.

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