WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications) is a valuable tool for making content more accessible to people who use assistive technologies (AT).
By defining elements that can’t be defined in native HTML, WAI-ARIA (or ARIA, for short) fills an important role. If your website has complex or dynamically generated content, ARIA helps you ensure that the content works predictably for people who use screen readers, eye-tracking systems, voice controls, and other types of AT.
However, WAI-ARIA can also create accessibility issues when misused. The first rule of ARIA is to avoid using it: Wherever possible, developers should use native HTML instead.
With that in mind, the latest WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) Million report highlights a potentially concerning trend: Usage of ARIA has nearly quadrupled since 2019.
ARIA usage has increased, but websites haven’t become much more accessible
Each year, WebAIM performs an automated analysis of the home pages of the top 1 million websites on the internet. Automated accessibility tests aren’t perfect, but the WebAIM Million report provides a snapshot of the overall state of web accessibility.
In February 2023, WebAIM detected over 77 million ARIA attributes on tested home pages — that’s about 77 attributes per page on average. ARIA usage increased by 29% over the past year and nearly 400% since 2019.
To be clear, it’s certainly good news that more web developers are thinking about accessibility. There’s no other reason to use ARIA — it’s intended solely for AT users.
But other statistics from the 2023 WebAIM Million report are less encouraging:
- 96.3% of tested home pages had detectable failures of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0. That’s only a slight decrease from 96.8% in 2022.
- Home page complexity increased significantly over the past year. Pages had an average of 1050 elements in February 2023, compared with 955 elements in February 2022.
- Across the tested home page, nearly 50 million accessibility errors were detected. That’s an average of 50 errors per page.
In other words, while ARIA usage is increasing, digital accessibility hasn’t improved significantly over the past several years. The vast majority of websites have serious issues that could impact users with disabilities — and ARIA usage won’t change that.
And there’s more bad news: Home pages with ARIA present averaged 68.6% more detected errors than those without ARIA. To put that in perspective, if a page uses ARIA, users could expect to encounter 22 additional potential barriers than on home pages that did not use ARIA.
If you decide to use ARIA, you’re making a commitment to use it properly
We’re certainly not discouraging the use of WAI-ARIA. If your website needs ARIA markup, you have a responsibility to use it.
But it’s important to deploy ARIA properly. That means analyzing your markup, double-checking your syntax, and performing manual tests with screen-reading software.
Before using ARIA, review the core principles and avoid common mistakes:
- ARIA is widely supported, but it’s not as widely supported as native HTML. If you can use semantic HTML to define an element, use that instead — don’t use ARIA simply because it’s available. For more guidance, read: Plain Old Semantic HTML: A Perfect Basis for Accessibility.
- Don’t change native semantics unless you absolutely have to.
- Test your content with a keyboard. Remember, all interactive ARIA controls must be usable with a keyboard alone (no mouse). For more guidance, read: What is Keyboard Accessibility?
- Think carefully before using ARIA to hide content from AT users. Don’t use role="presentation" or aria-hidden="true" on a focusable element. For more guidance, read: Is It Okay to Hide Content from Screen Readers?
- Test your content against the latest version of WCAG. Use a combination of manual and automated tests.
As ARIA usage continues to expand, we expect more developers to learn the rules and avoid barriers that could affect AT users. In the meantime, it’s crucial to follow the best practices — and test your work.
For additional tips, read the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Using ARIA working draft. For help with a specific ARIA issue — or to develop a sustainable, self-sufficient digital accessibility strategy — send us a message to connect with a subject matter expert.