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An introduction to using WAI-ARIA to enable Web 2.0 accessibility

By Richard Schwerdtfegger and Becky Gibson, IBM

With the rapid adoption of rich-client technologies, Web 2.0 applications have proliferated. By incorporating Ajax libraries, like Dojo or other client side technologies that use JavaScript and CSS, Web sites are vastly changing the user experience. Currently, many Web 2.0 features are not accessible to people with disabilities, especially people who rely on screen readers and people who cannot use mouse devices. WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Application) defines new methods of communicating Web 2.0 functionality to assistive technologies (AT). With WAI-ARIA, developers can make advanced Web applications accessible and usable to people who have disabilities.

This article explains how to use WAI-ARIA to overcome the following accessibility issues for Web 2.0 applications:

Framework for developing accessible Web content: WAI-ARIA

WAI-ARIA is a framework for developing accessible Web 2.0 content and applications containing dynamic content and advanced user interface controls developed with Ajax, HTML, JavaScript and related technologies. The WAI-ARIA framework contains a set of attributes that can be applied to HTML and mapped to accessibility APIs by the browser.

WAI-ARIA acts like a contract between the AT and application to enable access to rich content with the semantic information necessary to make the content accessible. Figure 1 shows the relationship between the contract, AT and Web UI.

Figure 1. The contract, AT and Web page relationship using WAI-ARIA

WAI-ARIA contains Roles, States and Properties. Figure 2 shows the WAI-ARIA taxonomy.

SVG class diagram | PNG class diagram | Class diagram description

Figure 2. WAI-ARIA taxonomy 1

Browsers and AT that are supported by IBM Web applications and support WAI-ARIA include FireFox 3.0 and later, Internet Explorer 8, Safari 5, Opera 9.5 and JAWS 10 and later.

Using WAI-ARIA to provide a navigable page structure

The WAI-ARIA regional landmark roles such as main, search and navigation can be used to provide a navigable structure within a Web page.

The following example (Figure 3) demonstrates how to use these regional landmark roles to support screen reader keyboard navigation to their respective regions. web site with a menu bar item highlighted and a drop-down menu available for the user
Figure 3. A typical Web site with regional landmarks indicated.

This Web site has several parts: search, navigation, main, and so on. As shown in the following example HTML, the aforementioned regional landmark roles can be used to make navigation easier for a screen reader user:

     <div role="search">
     The search area

     <div role="navigation">
     The navigation area

     <div role="main">
     The main content area

In addition to the regional landmark roles, you can use other WAI-ARIA roles that define page structure. Guidance on incorporating these additional roles is located in the "Providing Navigable Structure within Web Pages" section of the WAI-ARIA Authoring Practices.

WAI-ARIA live regions

Before WAI-ARIA, screen readers like JAWS often did not read text that was dynamically rendered on different regions of a page. As a result, people with disabilities found it difficult to use rich Web 2.0 applications that contained content such as mash-ups, an auto-updating stock ticker or an auto-updating message log.

With the advent of WAI-ARIA live regions, Web application developers can easily make dynamic content accessible to screen reader users. The following example uses a WAI-ARIA live region in a stock ticker widget to enable JAWS to read quotes as the ticker displays them. The widget automatically displays a new stock quote every second.

When live region information is auto-updating, you should provide a mechanism to stop and restart the flow of information so as not to overwhelm a screen reader user. Therefore, the stock ticker widget provides a "pause ticker" checkbox to pause the flow of stock quotes displayed by the ticker, as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 4. Stock quote ticker

The following HTML is used to render the ticker. The aria-live attribute on the fieldset element enables a screen reader to announce quotes as they appear in the ticker.

<input type="button" id="startQuotes" name="startQuotes" value="Start stock
<input type="checkbox" id="tickerOff" name="tickerOff"
<label for="tickerOff">Pause ticker</label>
<fieldset id="quote" aria-live="polite"><legend>Stock

The showQuotes() function starts the flow of quotes into the ticker box. When the "pause ticker" checkbox is checked, toggleTicker() is called which stops the flow of quotes. When the checkbox is unchecked, the ticker resumes displaying quotes.

<script type="text/javascript">
var t;

/* Start quotes */
function showQuotes(){

/* Simulate a stock ticker */
 var quotes = new Array("IBM 97.75", "GLW 7.87", "C 8.75", "WB 5.98",
"SUN 3.65", "RIG 72.25");

var quoteStr =
var msgContainer = document.createElement('div');


    /* Show a quote every second */


/* Pause/resume quotes */
function toggleTicker(obj){
    if (obj.checked == true){
    } else {

To create a live region using WAI-ARIA, developers should add the aria-live property to an element with one of the following values:

Using the above aria-live options, developers can divide content dynamically changed or updated into several criteria levels and decide how to inform users of the updated content.

Using WAI-ARIA to enhance keyboard navigation

In HTML, only links and form elements can receive keyboard focus, meaning that the Tab key is used to set focus on those elements. However, for Web 2.0 applications, the application may need to focus on span or div elements that define, for example, tree nodes or tabs within a tablist.

WAI-ARIA enables all HTML elements to receive keyboard focus by extending the tabindex property to apply to any element.

The following table shows the usage of the tabindex attribute:
Tabindex Attribute Focusable Tab Order Example
Not present Default focus behavior: only form controls and links can receive focus Follow the default tab order <span>span text here</span>
Tabindex="0" Can be focused by mouse, keyboard, and JavaScript In tab order relative to element's position in document <span tabindex="0">span text here</span>
Tabindex="X" (where X is a positive integer between 1 and 32768) Can be focused by mouse, keyboard, and JavaScript The tab order is based on numeric value. Will appear before items in the natural tab order such as anchors and form elements. <span tabindex="1">span text here</span>
tabindex="-1" Can be focused only by JavaScript Must focus it with element.focus() as a result of arrow or other key press <span tabindex="-1">span text here</span>

Applications can implement WAI-ARIA arrow key navigation by capturing arrow key keypress events and manipulating tabindex to set focus to the proper UI element. More information can be found on implementing keyboard navigation in the "Providing Keyboard Navigation for Widgets" section of the WAI-ARIA Authoring Practices.

Using WAI-ARIA to enable widget accessibility

Widgets in Web 2.0 refer to components that are not native to HTML, or components that are highly enhanced by JavaScript. Web 2.0 sites contain many widgets, some of which are inaccessible for people with disabilities using screen readers. To solve this problem, you should enable WAI-ARIA keyboard navigation and communicate accessibility information to screen readers, using role, name, and state attributes as well as value.

The following is a combo box widget:

Figure 5. Combo box widget

The combo box widget includes:

The following are keyboard interactions for the combo box:

Implementation of these keyboard features is not difficult, yet communicating attributes of the widget to screen readers is. With WAI-ARIA Roles, States, and Properties attributes, developers can communicate properties and current status of a widget to accessible technologies.

The following are typical steps to make the combo box widget accessible:

With WAI-ARIA keyboard navigation and WAI-ARIA roles and properties, this combo box widget is accessible to people with disabilities. Note that WAI-ARIA-supported browsers and screen readers must be used.

The following is the Dojo-rendered HTML code for the example combo box that demonstrates how Dojo uses WAI-ARIA to enhance widget accessibility:

<label id="NEStates_label" for="NEStates">New England States:</label>
<div aria-labelledby="NEStates_label" dir="ltr" role="combobox" class="dijitTextBox dijitComboBox" id="widget_NEStates">
     <div role="presentation" class="dijitArrowButton" dojoattachevent="onmousedown:_onArrowMouseDown">
          <input role="presentation" class="dijitInputField dijitArrowButtonInner" value="? " tabindex="-1" readonly="readonly" type="text">
     <div class="dijitReset dijitValidationContainer">
          <input role="presentation" class="dijitValidationIcon" value="? " tabindex="-1" readonly="readonly" type="text">
     <div class="dijitInputContainer">
          <input value="Connecticut" title="New England States" tabindex="0" id="NEStates" aria-invalid="false" aria-autocomplete="list" aria-haspopup="true" role="textbox" name="NewEnglandST" autocomplete="off" dojoattachevent="onkeypress:_onKeyPress" type="text">

Note: When tabbing into this Dojo combo box, the screen reader reads: "To move through items press up or down arrow."

By using WAI-ARIA, Web 2.0 applications can be made fully accessible to all users.  Developers can start by adding WAI-ARIA landmarks and by identifying regions that are incrementally updated. Adding landmarks to Web sites will identify important parts of the page and make navigation easier for assistive technology users. Using the aria-liveregion attribute with an appropriate value will insure that screen reader users are aware of all information on the page and can interact with it. Adding keyboard support assists all users and is a prerequisite for access by screen reader users. The WAI-ARIA roles, states and properties enable all of the rich user interface controls for full accessibility. Developers should embrace WAI-ARIA now to make the Web accessible for all.