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.

Latest News from W3C WAI

There’s a lot going on over at the W3C WAI (World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative), with current guidelines being updated and new ones being developed. So here’s a brief overview of what’s happening.

* ATAG (Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 – These guidelines are currently at Working Draft level. ATAG 1.0 is still the stable version which should be used.

* EARL (Evaluation and Report Language) 1.0 – The public comment period for the “Representing Content in RDF” and “HTTP Vocabulary in RDF” companion documents has recently finished (29th September 2008). Once the comments have been addressed, these documents will be published as Notes rather than Recommendations. (EARL 1.0 is currently has the status of Working Draft.)

* Shared Web Experiences: Mobile and Accessibility Barriers – This draft document gives examples of how people with disabilities using computers and people without disabilities using mobile devices experience similar barriers when using the Web. Comments on this document closed on 20th August.

* UAAG (User Agent Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 – This version is currently at Public Working Draft status and is at this stage for information only.

* WAI-AGE Addressing Accessibility Needs Due to Ageing – This project is currently at the literature review stage and aims to find out whether any new work is required to improve web accessibility for older people.

* WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative Accessible Rich Internet Applications) – The Working Draft has recently been updated and comments on this update closed (3rd September).

* WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 – After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, WCAG 2.0 finally looks as though it’s going to finalised for public use by the end of the year. Data from the implementation of trial WCAG 2.0 websites has been gathered and whilst the status is still “Candidate Recommendation”, this status is likely to be updated in November.

WAI-ARIA Roadmap Announced

The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) have just announced the latest addition to their accessibility stable Рthe ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) Roadmap, which will make dynamic web content accessible.

The Roadmap is essentially a suite of documents made up of:

* the WAI-ARIA Roadmap itself –¬†addresses the accessibility of dynamic Web content by describing “the technologies to map controls, AJAX live regions, and events to accessibility APIs, including custom controls used for Rich Internet Applications”. It also “outlines new navigation techniques to mark common Web structures such as menus, primary content, secondary content, banner information and other types of Web structures”, which can improve accessibility.

* Roles for Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA Roles) – provides a means of identifying roles in dynamic web content, in order to improve interoperability with assistive technologies.

* States and Properties Module for Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA States) – enables the behaviour of an element to be included in XML (eXtensible Mark-up Language), which can then be used in conjunction with assistive technologies or to dynamically render content via different style sheets.

Further information is available from the press release.