WTF-ARIA?!?

Recently, I saw someone Tweet that “…ARIA should be last” when working to make a website accessible. As you learn in Logic 101, generalized statements are particularly false. Such a broad statement, though mostly correct at least in spirit, is wholly incorrect in certain situations. ARIA is clearly the right choice in cases where native semantics do not exist at all or are poorly supported. Still, there are some parts of ARIA that I think are just plain silly and ill-advised – namely roles which are intended to behave exactly like elements in native HTML.

role=button

There used to be a time when creating pseudo-buttons, like a link styled to look like a button, made sense. Styling the <button> element was incredibly difficult. These days that’s not the case. As I understand it, any browser that will support the ‘button’ role will also reliably support CSS on the <button> element, making the use of this role pretty silly.

role=heading

I’m completely unable to find a use case for the ‘heading’ role. The heading role, as the name implies, can function as a substitute for <h1>, <h2>, etc. and the WAI-ARIA spec says If headings are organized into a logical outline, the aria-level attribute can be used to indicate the nesting level. In other words, you could do something like this:

<div role='heading' aria-level='3'>Foo</div>

I cannot imagine a scenario where this is at all a suitable alternative to HTML’s native heading elements. It is far more markup  than necessary and, I suspect, more prone to errors by uninformed devs.

role=link

This is another role that is ripe for developer error. Actual links – that is, an <a> element with an href attribute pointing to a valid URI – have specific methods and properties available to them, as I described in an earlier post titled Links are not buttons…. Adding a role of ‘link’ on something that is not a link now requires you to ensure that your code behaves the same way as a link. For instance, it should be in the tab order, should react to the appropriate events via keyboard, and that it actually navigate to a new resource when acted upon. These are all things an actual, properly marked up link can do, making this role silly as well.

role=list / role=listitem

Given the WAI-ARIA descriptions of the list Role and listitem Role I can’t see anything that these roles offer that can’t be handled by plain HTML. The latter is described as A group of non-interactive list items while the latter is A single item in a list or directory. In other words, these things are the same as a regular ole HTML list.

role=radio

The radio Role is A checkable input in a group of radio roles, only one of which can be checked at a time. Of all of the roles listed here this is the only one I could justify using. Unlike all of the other roles listed, the native element this replaces cannot be styled with much flexibility. It is infinitely more easy to style something else and give it a role of ‘radio’. At the same time I must admit to wondering: Why? At the risk of sounding like I’m against “design”, it just doesn’t seem worth it to forego the reliability of a native control just for visual styling purposes. There are several JavaScript libraries, jQuery plugins, or whole front-end frameworks aimed at the styling of forms and almost universally they fail to meet accessibility requirements in at least one of the following ways.

  • The design itself has poor contrast
  • The styling doesn’t work in Windows High Contrast Mode
  • The styling would be incompatible with user-defined styles
  • The custom elements are not keyboard accessible or, at least, visual state change doesn’t work via keyboard

In the case of custom radio buttons, merely adding a role of ‘radio’ is not enough and the costs of doing it right should be strongly considered against the reliability and robustness of just using native radio buttons.

Why ARIA?

All though the roles discussed above are, in my opinion, just plain silly in HTML, WAI-ARIA wasn’t created just for making HTML documents accessible. Ostensibly, it can be used for any web content and, in fact, the role attribute was added to SVG Tiny 1.2 all the way back in 2008. SVG would otherwise have no way of exposing the same name, state, role, and value information without ARIA and it has been incorporated directly into SVG 2.
Meme: ARIA All The Things!
So on the topic of “Use ARIA first” vs. “Use ARIA last”, neither is right. The right answer is to use ARIA whenever ARIA is the best tool for the task at hand. That might be for a progressive enhancement scenario when the user’s browser doesn’t support a specific feature, or to enhance accessibility under certain use cases, or to create an accessible widget that doesn’t exist in native semantics. Blanket statements don’t help, but constructive guidance does.

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If you or your organization need help with accessibility consulting, strategy, or accessible web development, email me directly at karl@karlgroves.com or call me at +1 443-875-7343. Download Resume [MS Word]

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