WAI-ARIA: What does it do?

I’ve just been listening a podcast by Freedom Scientific (developer of the JAWS screenreader software), which focused on the WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Applications) suite.

The hour long podcast was conducted in the form of an interview by Jonathan Mosen with Freedom Scientific’s Chief Technical Officer, Glen Gordon, who gave an overview of what it does. Following the interview, Mosen gave an example of it in use.

Gordon started off by talking about Web 2.0 and how web pages are becoming more and more like applications and suggested that, in a way, we were returning to days of the dumb terminal. The distribution model has also changed. Nowadays, many applications are free to use, with funding either from advertising or as “pay-as-you-go” or “pay-in-chunks”. Web 2.0 has various benefits including centralisation of documents, which can be accessed from anywhere in the world via multiple device types, and ease of collaboration.

However, there can be accessibility issues. Prior to the development of the ARIA suite, there was no standard way of displaying web pages. Although HTML (Hypertext Mark-up Language) is a standard way of presenting content, it doesn’t actually cover concepts relating to the layout of applications or the web page itself (e.g. trees, the difference between a navigation menu and a list of resources in the content, etc). Therefore, it is difficult for other applications (such as screenreaders) to understand the layout of the page itself.

Most web pages are divided up into separate areas (e.g. navigation, content, banner, etc), but it is not always easy to tell where one area ends and another begins. ARIA, however, allows each area to be labeled as a “landmark” of a particular type (such as navigation, main content area, search, etc) so that other applications know how to interact with different parts of a web page. In a way, it allows web page developers to annotate pages in a standard way, which can then be interpreted by other applications.

ARIA consists of “roles” (“document” or “application”) for each page, with each role containing “attributes” (e.g. “menu item”), which are applied as an HTML tag. Changes in “state” can also be identified, e.g. whether a tree view is open or closed, and “alerts”, such as a change to an advert or a new contribution to an online chat, can be described as important or not important.

Mosen then demonstrated an example of an alpha version of an online player for Radio New Zealand, which includes an ARIA-enabled slide control for the volume (only usable in an ARIA-enabled browser or with other ARIA-enabled software, such as JAWS 10.0) and also allows the user to move forward in the programme.

At present, only the latest version of Firefox 3 supports some of ARIA’s features, although other browsers such as IE8 (Internet Explorer), Opera, and Safari are following suit.

Icon Chat and Search Engine for People with Low Literacy

Following on from my post about “Taking Symbols for Granted“, where I reviewed Jonathan Chetwynd’s paper entitled “Communication with symbols: from the web to the internet and beyond”, Jonathan has just let me know about the launch of his Icon Chat and Search Engine at openicon.org. The Opera browser is recommended for viewing the site, although you can use FireFox to get the general gist (IE7 is rather intermittant).

The site includes links to three short YouTube videos describing:
* how to chat and search with icons using the application. It shows how chat can take place using symbols, such as using a “heart” for love;
* how to create a web page with a live icon – i.e. a graphic feed which updates, for example a weather symbol which updates as the weather is updated for that location;
* a look at a feed which uses icons, i.e. Zanadu (SVG enabled, so may not work on Internet Explorer), which has live image feeds of pet images from Flickr, the latest news, the latest weather, a direct link to play Radio 4, etc.

The aim is to present information in the form of images or symbols, which are drawn in from feeds. This is similar to a widget based approach, but the concept behind this site allows people with low literacy levels to use the internet without having to navigate complex external sites.

Taking Symbols for Granted

The Journal of Assistive Technologies (Vol.2, Issue 3) has recently published a paper entitled “Communication with symbols: from the web to the internet and beyond” (see the list of contents and a sample article) by Jonathan Chetwynd.

Chetwynd begins by reminding us of how many symbols there are around us – from road signs in the physical world to emoticons in the virtual world. We use them so much in our everyday life that we take them for granted, even seeing and understanding graphics before (or even without) reading any associated text (c.f. the Apple iPhone interface, which has large symbols for each application and a small text name underneath).

Symbols are useful means of communication for people with low literacy levels or who do not speak the local language (although some symbols may also have localised or cultural meanings, which may be different from the universally understood meaning). Chetwynd suggests that as online computer games almost completely rely on graphics and symbols that games developers may be well-suited to make useful contributions to the development of symbol-based communication.

He also laments the fact that many groups which have an influence on web accessibility are effectively only open to people from large organisations, because of the financial or resource costs required. However, it’s not all bad news. The W3C SVG (World Wide Web Consortium Scalable Vector Graphics) Working Group has opened its work up to the public and has recently chartered a public interest group. Chetwynd’s peepo website is SVG enabled.

SVG is a graphics specification which can include text and metadata descriptions, so that they can be searched. It is a very flexible format and is well-suited to small and mobile devices. Most browsers (with the exception of Internet Explorer) have built-in support for SVG and even some mail clients are SVG-enabled. Theoretically, this means that e-mails containing symbols only can be exchanged and understood.

Chetwynd’s paper reminds that we don’t just live in a text-based world. Symbols are all around us. They instruct and remind us, and help us to communicate and navigate. They can be seen as a common, almost universal language, and provide benefits to people who, for whatever reason, have difficulties understanding text or language. By using them more on web-based resources, alongside text labels, not only will we help others to communicate but we will also help ourselves.

We Want to Show You the WCAG

If you thought standards and specifications were something that would definitely not make you want to get up and dance – think again.  This YouTube video about the new WCAG 2.0 will make you see it in a whole new light and may even have you tapping your toes.

It’s an innovative and fun way to promote a standard and maybe it’s something we at JISC CETIS could try!