WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications) is a powerful tool for making content work with assistive technologies (AT).
However, ARIA support varies. If your website uses ARIA, it may be presented differently based on the user’s choice of screen reader and web browser.
That’s why the first rule of ARIA is so important: Wherever possible, use semantic HTML instead. But some content cannot be semantically defined with native HTML, so ARIA is a necessity — especially if your website has complex or dynamically generated content.
In April 2023, the ARIA and Assistive Technologies Community Group (ARIA-AT) announced the publication of its first Assistive Technology Support tables, which are available through the ARIA Authoring Practices Guide (APG). The tables show how ARIA is supported by various combinations of screen readers and web browsers.
At this point, the support tables are fairly limited — they only show pattern implementations for three screen readers and for a limited number of patterns — but more updates are coming soon, per the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) official announcement.
Developers can use assistive technology support tables to predict screen reader behavior
So, why are AT support tables so important?
For starters, most developers don’t use screen readers on a regular basis. If you’re not familiar with screen readers (or other types of AT), testing your content may result in false positives (identifying accessibility issues that don’t exist) or false negatives (missing accessibility issues).
“It has always been a struggle, often a monumental and expensive one, for web developers to find ways of coding experiences that are understandable by users of any assistive technology,” the ARIA-AT group writes.
“You get your site working with one AT and it ends up not working as well with another. Then the experience of your site with an important AT degrades because the latest version of that AT includes changes to better support a popular site that has encoded a similar experience in a different way.”
Support tables will be added regularly to the ARIA Authoring Practice Guide
For the last five years, the ARIA-AT group has worked with the accessibility community to develop support tables that are relatively accurate. That’s not a simple task: To make the tables useful, the group had to develop consensus expectations of AT behaviors.
Currently, the AT support tables are available on five ARIA authoring pages:
The ARIA-AT group intends to add additional support tables to the ARIA APG over time. To that end, they’re working with the developers of the three most common screen readers: JAWS (Jobs Access with Speech), NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access), and Apple Voiceover.
“The ARIA-AT CG is developing a quarterly schedule for covering the rest of the APG, and we plan to make it publicly available soon,” the group writes. “Over the course of 2023, as we integrate automation into the process, the tables will include data for more screen reader and browser combinations.”
ARIA support tables are helpful, but screen reader testing remains important
Adding support tables to the APG will help to build consensus regarding the use of WAI-ARIA — and could help developers understand whether their content will work for AT users.
However, screen reader testing will remain important for the foreseeable future. Actively testing content helps to ensure conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for digital accessibility.
Wherever possible, screen reader tests should be performed by experienced AT users who have a background in web accessibility. Testing content regularly helps to lower the long-term costs of development — and prevents barriers from impacting your audience.
If you’re interested in contributing to the APG Support Tables project, visit the W3C’s “Contributing to the ARIA and Assistive Technologies” wiki page. For help with a specific ARIA issue — or to build a testing strategy for your content — send us a message to connect with an accessibility expert.