WAI-ARIA Expands Web Accessibility

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On behalf of the Web Accessibility Initiative's Protocols and Formats Working Group I am excited to announce that Accessible Rich Internet Applications 1.0 (WAI-ARIA) and its companion specification, WAI-ARIA 1.0 User Agent Implementation Guide, have become W3C Recommendations.

As described in the WAI-ARIA Overview, this technology makes advanced Web applications accessible and usable to people with disabilities. Work on ARIA began when the Web still used HTML 4, but it didn't support some of the functionality authors were creating. ARIA created an accessibility bridge between the very stable HTML specification and the dynamic feature development that was emerging, by relating features to each of the platform-specific Accessibility APIs. The WAI-ARIA specification provides a framework to describe features for user interaction, and the User Agent Implementation Guide defines how information about this functionality can be provided to accessibility APIs. Assistive Technologies use this to provide services beyond those offered by the web browser to facilitate user interaction with web content by people with disabilities.

In addition to user interaction controls, ARIA provides ways to better enable use of web pages as a whole. "Landmark roles" allow authors to annotate regions of the page so users can find them quickly; this is important when users don't have the overall knowledge of the page layout often represented in graphical browsers. Navigation and search regions, ancillary content, and of course the main content can be marked so users can find the region they need at the moment. The technology also allows authors to indicate content that should be treated more like a software application than as document content, so assistive technologies can provide application-specific behavior. Finally it provides ways to handle regions of the page that automatically update their content, such as stock tickers or chat applications, which can be disruptive or unpercievable to some assistive technology users without the mediation provided by ARIA.

Reaching W3C Recommendation means WAI-ARIA has become a web standard. It has undergone extensive implementation, testing, and bug fixing, and the implementation report shows it is now well supported on many modern browsers; support is emerging on mobile browsers as well. Many major web applications already use ARIA to make a more accessible, dynamic user interface, and authors of all types of web content can now confidently incorporate ARIA into their solutions.

ARIA is not a self-contained content technology; rather, it enhances other technologies. It is part of HTML 5, and most content developers today will use ARIA in HTML documents. Note that ARIA and HTML have overlapping features; in general the native HTML solution is preferred, but ARIA is available when needed. Beyond HTML, EPub 3.0, the digital book format which uses many W3C technologies, incorporates ARIA to support accessible e-books. SVG 2 is incorporating ARIA to enhance the accessibility of graphics, and work has begun on a future version of WAI-ARIA to better support this.

This 1.0 release of WAI-ARIA is an important milestone, but the work is not done. Beyond the work mentioned above, the Working Group is exploring accessibility needs created by new technologies. ARIA will also track the evolution of accessibility APIs so web applications can quickly take advantage of that. This is cutting-edge work. If you are interested in contributing to future ARIA development, consider joining the Protocols and Formats Working Group, or send comments by email to public-pfwg-comments@w3.org, or file an issue in W3C Bugzilla.

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