If your content refreshes automatically, you may have an accessibility issue.
Web developers often use the HTML meta element with the http-equiv attribute to automatically refresh content after a certain amount of time. The “refresh" value is used to define a time interval, at which point the document refreshes itself.
<meta http-equiv="refresh" content="300">
This attribute is widely supported by major internet browsers, but it can cause problems for users. The content may refresh without notifying users of the changes, which is especially problematic for people with attention disorders, people who use assistive technologies (AT), and other users with disabilities.
What WCAG Says About the Meta Refresh Attribute
People with disabilities may need more time to read your website, and content should never introduce an unexpected change of context.
Using a meta refresh that activates automatically after a short period of time may prevent conformance with several Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Success Criteria (SC):
- WCAG 2.1 SC 2.2.1, “Timing Adjustable" - Requires that websites provide users with a way to pause, extend, or turn off time limits, with limited exceptions. Level A
- WCAG 2.1 SC 2.2.4, “Interruptions" - Requires that interruptions can be postponed or suppressed by the user, except interruptions involving an emergency.
- WCAG 2.1 SC 3.2.5, “Change on Request" - Requires that changes of context are initiated only by user request (or that a mechanism is available to turn off these changes).
WCAG 2.1 SC 2.2.4 and 3.2.5 are Level AAA criteria — content may be reasonably accessible, even if they fail these criteria. However, SC 2.2.1, “Timing Adjustable,” is a Level A requirement, so WCAG conformance isn’t possible if you ignore this criterion. Learn more about the differences between WCAG conformance levels.
The bottom line: If content refreshes or updates, users need to be able to control that process. Otherwise, you’re introducing an accessibility barrier that will impact your audience.
When To Use Meta Tags to Refresh Content
So, if meta refresh is a problem, why is it supported?
In certain situations, it can serve an important purpose. For example, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) suggests using meta refresh to create an instant client-side redirect when authors don’t have control over server-side technologies.
In that case, setting the content attribute to “0" will trigger the redirect automatically. This isn’t ideal for search engine optimization (SEO), since it doesn’t operate as a true redirect — but it’s a functional workaround when you don’t have another option.
For other situations, the best practice is to avoid automatic updates unless they’re absolutely necessary. If that’s the case, inform users and provide a mechanism to pause or stop the updates. That mechanism should have clear controls that can be operated with a keyboard alone (without a mouse).
When Designing Web Content, Prioritize Accessibility
Developers often use meta refresh because it’s a quick, easy solution — but if your “quick” solution creates new problems, it’s not very effective.
When making any changes to the way your website operates, think about how real people interact with your content. Every website has users with disabilities, and inclusive design starts with accessibility: When features work for people with disabilities, they work well for all users. You'll write cleaner code and markup, and you’ll spend less time on future remediations.
To start thinking of accessibility as an opportunity — not a burden — download our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset. For guidance with a specific accessibility issue, send us a message to connect with an expert.