Implementation is hard. Too hard for the developers at Apple, it appears. So Web developers must faff around adding ARIA and tabindex and keyboard listeners (so most won’t) and the inevitable consequence of making accessibility hard is that assistive technology users will suffer.
HTML has a series of design principles, co-edited by Maciej Stachowiak who sent Apple’s feedback. One of those is called “Priority of Constituencies” which says
In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity. In other words costs or difficulties to the user should be given more weight than costs to authors; which in turn should be given more weight than costs to implementors; which should be given more weight than costs to authors of the spec itself, which should be given more weight than those proposing changes for theoretical reasons alone.
A while ago, there was discussion in CSS Working Group about an alt property to be added to CSS. Its purpose is to let assistive technology know the meaning of unicode characters inserted into a visual rendering of a document with CSS generated content. The problem is described by James Craig, Apple’s nice accessibility chappie.
It’s been shipping as -webkit-alt for a year now, and has just been added to the draft CSS Pseudo-Elements Module Level 4 spec. Let’s say you’re using a star glyph to show something is “new”, by generating CSS content using a class of .new as your selector:
The alt gives information to assistive technology.
The alt string can be blank. Assume you’re generating “►” to show that a widget is expandable. Because you’re a lovely human being and a responsible developer, you’re using aria-expanded="false" in the HTML. Therefore, you’d use empty alt in the CSS that generates the glyph to prevent assistive technology “helpfully” reading out “Black right-pointing pointer” after the AT has relayed the ARIA information to the user:
content: "\25BA"; /* a.k.a. ► */
/* aria-expanded="false" already in DOM,
so this pseudo-element is decorative */
Update 17:05 GMT fantasai of the CSS WG has mailed the CSS Working Group protesting against the syntax above. I don’t have any horse in the syntax race; my aim with this post is to show that we need some mechanism to give alternate content to assistive technology given that we allow non-textual content to be generated via CSS.
When I tweeted about this earlier, a few people objected to the concept because it adds content to CSS. But that ship has long sailed, with the content property that people have been using for ages. If you say “adding non-decorative content to a page is a misuse of CSS that merits the author 100,000 years in purgatory with Tim Berners-Mephistopholee pouring hot Ovaltine over their dingle-dangles whenever they try to sleep”, I will vehemently nod my agreement.
But sometimes, for organisational reasons, or because you inherited code, or you’re refactoring code from before you saw the light, you’re working with CSS that generates icons. This new property at least allows an author to make that content more accessible.
Years ago, I joined a web team a week after their brand new website had been delivered, months late and squillions over budget, by Big London Agency PLC. The site was a vile splodge of nested layout table cells and spacer GIFs with “click here” links pointing to PDFs. Of course, I could have instantly resigned my job and let the bank repossess my house.
Instead, I gently pointed out to any who would listen the inadequacies of the site and made plans about how it could be refactored. But while biding my time, I was also making small tweaks here and there to make it better and incrementally more accessible; removing duplicate link text from title attributes, changing “click here”s, putting blank alt text on spacer GIFs in the small parts of the template I controlled.
This was before the days of ARIA but I would have jumped at the chance of adding role="button" to the horrible mess of nested <div>s that the CMS spat out. Yes, it’s much better to spend a fortune getting the external CMS provider in to change the templates, the retest every single form on every single browser – but that simply wasn’t possible.
Two years later, when the senior manager who commissioned the terrible site left and we could jettison it, we did. And then we did it right. But for those who needed the content and were unable to wait nearly three years (that is, everyone), I’m glad I applied sticking plasters and polished turds.
It’s often said that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. But it’s also wise to remember: sometimes, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly than not at all. If you must have meaningful content generated by CSS, at least now you can make it accessible.
Matt Wilcox asked “I still don’t bother with <header> <footer> etc. I assume all widely used browsers support them now. But, do they do anything more than div?”.
It’s a good question. The answer I gave is “yes”. These two elements (and <nav> and <main>) give value to users of some assistive technologies on some browsers.
In the HTML5 spec, HTML elements are mapped to ARIA information. Some of those may be over-ridden by authors, but if they aren’t, they have default implicit ARIA semantics. A <header> element that is not a descendant of an article or section element maps to ARIA role=banner, for example. You don’t need to add any ARIA information; it’s included, free, in the HTML element.
These aren’t necessarily implemented everywhere; Steve Faulkner’s excellent html5accessibility.com keeps tabs of implementation. As an example, <footer> causes Chrome to expose the element with a footer role in IA2, and Firefox to exposes as ARIA landmark role=”contentinfo” (when not a child of article or section elements).
So my advice is: yes, use them – especially the main <header>, <footer>, <nav> and (once per page) <main>. On browsers/ ATs that don’t support them they do no harm. But don’t use billions.
Added 13 May to clear up confusion:
Use <header>, <footer> as often as your content requires – only the main header and footer carry implicit banner and contentinfo roles. At a minimum, use them once (assuming you have a page header and footer, that is).
At Edge Conference on Friday, Peter Gasston unmasked me as a secret accessibility wanker by saying “For a proper in-depth look at a11y in web components, see @brucel – he’s just spent weeks researching it for a talk next week.”
“Real” HTML elements have built-in behaviours. Something like a <button>, for example, can be focussed; it can be activated by the keyboard, and when it’s activated it does something. Developers don’t need to add anything to the button element to get these behaviours; they’re given to us.
You can also make your own custom elements with no fallback, too. But whichever way you choose, you need to add all the ARIA information and tabindex yourself. I don’t think this is misuse of ARIA; the ARIA spec says
WAI-ARIA is intended to augment semantics in supporting languages like HTML and SVG… It clarifies semantics to assistive technologies when authors create new types of objects, via style and script, that are not yet directly supported by the language of the page, because the invention of new types of objects is faster than standardized support for them appears in web languages.
Given that the whole point of Web Components is to add “new types of objects, via style and script, that are not yet directly supported by the language of the page”, this seems to me a pretty good fit.
But enough theorising – how well are Web Components supported in assistive technology?
That’s actually not too surprising; although Web Components and Shadow DOM can hide things from the “real” DOM of the page (by design), the browser mashes them all together to render them, and assistive technologies sit on top of browsers. Of course, if the developer couldn’t be bothered to add ARIA information etcetera, they may not be accessible – but the fact they’re encapsulated in a component doesn’t make it better or worse than if they’re in the page in the traditional way.
The primary impediment to accessibility on the Web isn’t technical, it’s social. It’s that many (most?) developers don’t give a toss. One aspect of Web Components is that they can be shared and imported into the HTML – think of server-side includes, but client-side.
I had a vision of a big CDN (like Google’s Web Fonts or hosting of jQuery) but Addy Osmani told me that including from third party CDNs could be a performance problem. Nevertheless, we can expect lots of Web Component libraries to spring up, and people saving them locally, using their build processes to check they have the latest versions in their directories for inclusion at run time.
I don’t think it’s necessary for me to urge developers to put the source code of the Web Components they write onto Github for forking and collaboration. Please do that, and make it easy for people to contribute, so that people who notice accessibility holes can send pull requests.
A while ago, on this blog, I got an email from a screenreader user telling me that the live comment preview below the comments box needed an ARIA live region to be accessible. It was a WordPress plugin, with the source code on Github. I sent a pull request and, a couple of days later, the developer merged my one-line change latest version of the plugin. That’s my site, and 43,410 others, made more accessible through one pull request.
I disagree. If passionate evangelism were enough, the web would be perfectly accessible now. My message to accessibility advocates is “passion – great. But with pull requests, please.”
Web Components and the Three Unsexy Pillars by Paul “it’s not my round” Lewis. “I believe we need some open and community-driven way of vetting and ensuring Web Components are accessible, secure and performant. While we figure out what that means, let’s not be fooled into thinking that Web Components can fix bad development”
A new fight has broken out in specland, between the supporters of RDFa and supporters of microdata. Observers may be wondering why; both are methods of adding extra markup to existing content in order that machines may better understand the content. Semantic Web proponents (note capital letters) dream of a Web where all content is linked by said machines. Semantic Web sceptics have more humble aspirations of search engines better understanding micro-content (is this string of digits a book ISBN, or a phone number?).
RDFa was part of XHTML 2. It became a W3C standard (or, in their vernacular, a “recommendation”) in 2008. microdata was invented by Ian Hickson as part of HTML5 because he identified deficiencies in RDFa. microdata was subsequently modularised out of W3C HTML5, but microdata is part of HTML5; it validates, whereas RDFa doesn’t.
Note the history. Like football fights that break out because one guy called an opposing team fan’s pint “a pouff”, this isn’t about the actual slight at all; this is about the past, allegiances and alliances; it’s a clash of world views. This is XML versus non-XML; it’s the XHTML 2 gang against the uncouth young turks of HTML5. This is Rangers vs Celtic; it’s Blur vs Oasis; it’s Tiswas vs Swap Shop.
What follows is the observation of a layman; I’ve not used much structured content, so am not an expert (I once tried to use microformats for events at the Law Society, but their accessibility problems prevented it.)
In my opinion, the primary deficiencies of Classic RDFa are that it’s too hard to write. For professional metadata-ologists it may be simple (but, hey, those guys understand Dublin Core!). The difficulty for me as an HTML wrangler was namespacing, CURIEs, and triples. This is XML land, and most web authors are not particularly adept with XML.
There’s also the problem that in order to use RDFa properly, you needed an xmlns attribute which is separate from the content you’re actually marking up (you don’t anymore in RDFa 1.1, see Manu’s comment). In a world where lots of content is syndicated via machine, or copy and pasted by authors (many of whom don’t really understand what they’re copy and pasting), this leads to breakage as not all of the necessary moving parts get transferred to their new environment. Hixie wrote
Copy-and-paste of the source becomes very brittle when two separate parts of a document are needed to make sense of the content. Copy-and-paste is how the Web evolved, so I think it is important to keep it functional and easy.
microdata solves this problem. It’s also easier to write than Classic RDFa (in my opinion) although I’m still mystified by the itemid attribute. I intend to start using microdata on this site soon (in order to plug the holes left by removal of the HTML5 pubdate attribute).
I’ve been recommending that people use microdata. Its main advantages:
it’s the basis of schema.org vocabularies which is a consortium of Bing, Google, Yahoo and Yandex, so you get some SEO benefits
Manu Sporny understood the problem that RDFa is hard to author for those of us who find the best ontology is a don’t-ology. Almost a year ago, he set about simplifying RDFa and came up with RDFa Lite. RDFa Lite greatly simplifies RDFa; in fact, you can search and replace microdata terms with RDFa terms (see his post Mythical Differences: RDFa Lite vs. Microdata).
RDFa has multiple advantages, too:
it’s compatible with existing RDFa data on the Web (which is why it uses many of the same patterns as microdata but uses a different syntax)
you can use different vocabularies in the same item, which you can’t in microdata – see Jeni Tennison’s Using Multiple Vocabularies in Microdata. This allows you to support both schema.org and Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol (OGP) using a single markup language
you can easily switch to full-fat RDFa in the future if you feel the need
It also validates as HTML5 (thanks Gunnar, in the comments)
While I completely understand that two competing standards makes it harder for developers in the short term, I agree with Marcos Caceres (who isn’t a WHATWG/ HTML5 zealot) who counters Manu Sporny’s objection to microdata progressing thus:
I hope you will instead focus your energy on convincing the world that RDFa is the “correct technology” on its own merits and not place your bets on a mostly meaningless label (“Recommendation”) given by some (much loved, but) random standard organisation.
I see no technical reason to favour microdata or RDFa Lite; both do the job. So, developers; which tickles your fancies? RDFa Lite or microdata?
For a while, people have suggested that HTML add a <content> element that wraps main content, because many websites have something like <div id="content"> surrounding the area that authors identify as their main content, which they then use to position and style that central content area.
Fans of WAI-ARIA also like to hang role="main" on that area, to tell assistive technology where the main content of the page starts. I do this too.
What would the element _mean_? If it’s just “the main content”, then that is what the element’s contents would mean even without the element, so really it means the element is meaningless. And in that case, <div> is perfect, since that’s what it is: a grouping element with no meaning.
The primary argument against a special element is that it isn’t necessary, because the beginning of “main content” can be identified by a process of elimination that I call the “Scooby Doo algorithm”: you always know that the person behind the ghost mask will be the sinister janitor of the disused theme park, simply because he’s the only person in the episode who isn’t Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, or Scooby. (Like most Scooby fans, I’m pretending Scrappy never existed.)
Similarly,the first piece of content that’s not in a <header>, <nav>, <aside>, or <footer> is the beginning of the main content, regardless of whether it’s contained in an <article>, or <div>, or whether it is a direct child of the <body> element.
Authors do need to be able to identify their main content, both for styling (in which case <div> seems to be the most appropriate element) and as a target for “skip links”, in which case, the current <a href=”#main”>Skip nav<a> … <div id=”main”> pattern still does the trick.
It’s worth noting that people often code “skip links” believing it’s required by WCAG 2, but if browsers implemented the Scooby Doo algorithm that is explicitly not the case: “It is not the intent of this Success Criterion to require authors to provide methods that are redundant to functionality provided by the user agent.”
Many assistive technology useragents understand the ARIA role=”main”, so skip links should be unnecessary; ATs can hone in on <div id=”main” role=main> by themselves, even without supporting the Scooby Doo algorithm.
This suggests to me that a new element isn’t required. But…
To turn the question around, if it is more convenient for authors to identify the main content, and not think about the classification of other parts, should we offer that facility as part of the platform? Or does it make sense to say that only the exhaustive identification of all supplementary content is an appropriate way to mark up a page anyway?
Chaals argues that it makes authoring easier – suddenly you get extra accessibility by just adding one <content> element, rather than adding the other elements that the Scooby Doo algorithm can then exclude. People using CMSs, who only control the textarea that gets lumped in as “main content” and can’t touch the surrounding areas can now add an element, without having to ask others to tweak templates.
But then, they can do this already, by surrounding their content with <div role=”main”> and this already works in assistive technologies.
But not every cowpath needs paving. If it did, we’d also have a <logo> and a <container> element (#4 and #5 respectively), and we’d be recommending tables for layout. If something can be done automatically, without requiring extra authorial work, shouldn’t that be favoured? In the same way that we like HTML5 form types as they’re baked into the browser, shouldn’t the Scooby Doo algorithm be preferable?
Of course, the Scooby Doo algorithm requires the author to use <header>, <footer> <nav> and <aside> — but if (s)he doesn’t want/ isn’t able to author HTML5, ARIA’s role="main" is there precisely as bridging technology.
There’s also the argument that authors expect there to be a <content> element, so its absence violates the Principle of Least Surprise. But I’m not sure that’s a valid argument. Implementing the Scooby Doo algorithm would mean that pages whose author does nothing for accessibility can be made so that their main content area may be programmatically determined. ARIA exists for pages that aren’t in HTML5, or until the Scooby Doo algorithm is widely supported, and analysis shows that most ARIA is correctly used by authors.
Why add an extra complexity, which is more to go wrong and thus potentially harms accessibility?
This proposal adds new elements and attribute to [HTML5] to enable different sources of images based on browser and display characteristics. The proposal addresses multiple use cases such as images used in responsive web designs and different images needed for high density displays.
Of course, the publication of an editor’s draft means nothing. There isn’t any indication that any browser manufacturer will implement it. Philip Jagenstadt of Opera (but speaking personally) has already commented
Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to reuse the syntax of <video> + <source>, since it invites people to think that they work the same when they in fact are very different. It could be made to work, but the algorithm needs a lot more detail. Disclaimer: This is neither a “yay” nor “nay” from Opera Software, just my POV from working on HTMLMediaElement.
I don’t think that’s productive. What is productive is the debate that this publication will (hopefully) foster. Two different but connected issues need debating. Firstly, the technical debate needs to continue. There are problems with the <picture> element, such as Philip points out, and its verbosity and potential to be a maintainability nightmare, as pointed out by Matt Wilcox.
And we need to work out how all can play a role in specifying the Web. The W3C dropped the ball with XHTML 2 because it was a philosophically elegant, intellectually satisfying specification that bore absolutely no relevance to the real world.
WHATWG picked up that ball, and grew the Web, because they knew what developers wanted: Flash and Silverlight’s application capabilities. The browser manufacturers who made up the early WHATWG knew that if those capabilities weren’t added to browsers, they would die.
But the gatekeepers of WHATWG aren’t jobbing developers or designers. Nothing wrong in that: neither am I any more. But their inability or unwillingness to account for the art direction use case has caused them to drop the ball here.
We need to get everyone’s voices heard: — people like Philip with implementor’s experience, people like Hixie with his encyclopaedic understanding of how specs inter-relate, and also solicit and understand the needs of those who make websites but can’t express their requirements in the language of specs, algorithms and IDL.
I don’t know how we can do this. The CSS Working Group had designers attending as invited experts for a short while, but I’m told that wasn’t particularly useful for either group. A group of designers called the CSS Eleven hailed themselves as “an international group of visual web designers and developers who are committed to helping the W3C’s CSS Working Group to better deliver the tools that are needed to design tomorrow’s web” and then promptly disappeared.
Hopefully, this strawman spec can be refined into something workable that gives developers a simple, declarative way to send different-sized, art directed images depending on bandwidth and device characteristics. This means organisations waste less bandwidth, and it’s a faster (and cheaper) Web for consumers — you know, the great unwashed that we make websites for.
The idea behind the feature is to allow authors to provide multiple variants of the same image at differing resolutions, and to allow the User Agent to choose the resource that is most appropriate at the time. This patch will choose the most appropriate image based on device scale factor.
As far as I can tell, it will be in Safari 6 (OS X 10.8, shipping in July) and Mobile Safari for iOS 6, so we’ll be able to do adaptive background images but not adaptve content images.
Once that happens, I bet it’s 0.03 nanoseconds before developers convert <img src=”foo.blah” alt=”useful alternate text”> into an empty <div>s with adaptive background images using -webkit-image-set and (please!) a fallback background images for non-webkit browsers.
Why wouldn’t they? Retina screens will download massive but beautiful images, while users of lower-res phones save bandwidth by downloading smaller images instead of huge images and then reducing them down. Problem solved.
And, unfortunately, people who don’t download images, or can’t perceive images won’t get any alternate text, as there is no content <img> element any more. Those guys have always been last in the pecking order and there’s no reason to assume they’ll get a better deal this time.
And that’s why some agreement on <picture>, <pic>, <img srcset=”…”> (whatever it is; I don’t much care) needs to happen, and fast.
Hosted web apps are .. er .. web sites. But wrapped up, with a manifest, they can be monetized in a synergy of micropayment leverage.
“Installing” packaged apps can give them greater permissions than web sites. Hixie responded
The “installation” security model of asking the user up-front to grant trust just doesn’t work because users don’t understand the question, and the “installation” security model of curating apps and trying to determine by empirical examination whether an application is trustworthy or not just doesn’t scale.