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The purpose behind the WAI-ARIA standard

When it comes to requirements of modern interactive websites, sometimes the semantic vocabulary of HTML may not be enough anymore. To fill this gap, the Accessible Rich Internet Application (ARIA) specification was introduced: it describes how to add semantics to HTML content in order to make user controls and dynamic content more accessible. However, there are pitfalls you need to know about.

Handling HTML shortcomings

Over the last 10 to 20 years, not much has changed to the way content is laid out and marked up in HTML. But since its early days, many de-facto standard user interface patterns have made their way into the collective awareness of the internet, often generally referred to as widgets or rich internet applications (RIAs). Many of those lack native HTML equivalents - typical examples being tablists, dropdown menus, and autocompletes.

Fictional tablist example

Take a look at the following fictional code:

<!-- Fictional example! Will not work in real life. -->
  <tabitem target="dancing">Dancing</tabitem>
  <tabitem target="soccer">Soccer</tabitem>

  <tabpanel id="dancing">...</tabpanel>
  <tabpanel id="soccer">...</tabpanel>

It would be great to have something like this natively in HTML, where the browser would provide all behaviour of toggling visibility of elements when activating a tabitem. But this did not happen yet, and maybe never will.

Mimicking a tablist visually

Visually, it is not a problem to mimic a tablist. Just use some appropriate standard HTML, then apply some visual attributes and custom JavaScript behaviour to resemble a tablist's look and feel:

.tablist {
  /* Some nice visual attributes */
$(".tablist [data-target]").click(function() {
  // Some fancy JavaScript to toggle tabpanel visibility
<div class="tablist">
      <button data-target="#dancing" class="active">Dancing</button>

      <button data-target="#soccer">Soccer</button>

  <div id="dancing">...</div>
  <div id="soccer" hidden>...</div>

But simply presenting something visually is not enough for screen readers (if you are really curious and want to learn more about this, skip ahead and read Screen readers do not convey visual attributes). For example, although the currently active tabitem can be distinguished visually using class="active" and some CSS styling, screen readers will not know which tabitem in fact is the active one. Proper semantical information is missing.

ARIA to the rescue (?)

To fill this gap, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) - which belongs to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3) - has introduced the technical specification ARIA. It provides specific HTML attributes (role and aria-*) that allow adding specific semantical meaning to existing HTML elements:

  • role adds (or overrides) a semantical role of an element, for example <span role="button">.
  • aria-* attributes provide statuses to the current semantical role, for example <span role="button" aria-pressed="true">.
    • Those statuses can have specific values, depending on the role of the element. For example, aria-pressed can have the values true, false, and mixed.

Many de-facto standard user interface patterns do have an ARIA specification, and so do tablists, see Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) 1.1 - Tablist.

Tablist using ARIA

Marked up with ARIA, our tablist example would look something like this:

<div class="tablist">
  <ul role="tablist">
    <li role="presentation">
      <button role="tab" aria-controls="dancing" aria-selected="true">Dancing</button>

    <li role="presentation">
      <button role="tab" aria-controls="soccer" aria-selected="false">Soccer</button>

  <div role="tabpanel" id="dancing">...</div>
  <div role="tabpanel" id="soccer" hidden>...</div>

First, role="tablist" was added to the list container (containing the tabs). The <ul role="tablist"> element won't be announced as list now anymore by screen readers, but as something like "tablist" (depending on the screen reader).

Then, role="presentation" was added to the list elements of the former list. As the list is not a list anymore, the specific <li role="presentation"> elements must not have specific list semantics anymore. The presentation role removes any semantical information: the <li> elements are now treated similar to plain <div> elements (if you are really curious and want to learn more about this, skip ahead and read Removing semantics using presentation role). It may seem silly to use a semantic container and then remove its semantics. But this is generally a good practice for providing backwards compatibility with legacy screen readers that may not support ARIA.

Finally, role="tab" was added to each tab element. The <button role="tab"> element won't be announced as button now anymore by screen readers, but as something like "tab" (depending on the screen reader). In addition, some special aria-* attributes were added:

  • aria-controls lets screen readers know, which tabpanel's visibility is toggled upon activation or deactivation of the tab. This allows to quickly jump from tabitem to tabpanel forth and back (depending on the screen reader).
  • aria-selected lets screen readers know, which tab is currently the active one, and announces this to the user with something like "active" (depending on the screen reader).

Nice and clean. This looks pretty promising, doesn't it?

No magic all-in-one solution

As HTML connaisseurs, we are used that we can add some attributes to elements, and the browser magically takes care of making it all work as expected - like providing interaction using keyboard and mouse, toggling visibility and look of elements, managing internal statuses, etc.

ARIA is different: it is a bare set of attributes and their specific values. So in contrast to traditional HTML, the browser is only taking care of conveying its current state. Anything else, like changing such a state from aria-selected="true" to false, must be provided by you (the developer) using JavaScript, CSS, and (sometimes) additional HTML!

In the current example, you need to:

  • Implement an intuitive keyboard control pattern (or provide clear instruction of how to control the widget with keyboard only and screen readers).
  • Take care of toggling the visibility of the tabpanels.
  • Take care of toggling aria-selected.

Admitted, a tablist is a rather easy user interface pattern, so it is not too hard to provide this functionality yourself. But there are much more complex patterns (for example, autocompletes), where it can become a major challenge to provide appropriate interaction, manage all the required attributes, and keeping their states and visual representation in sync.

Varying support

To make things even trickier, ARIA support among browsers and screen readers varies quite a bit. While some may support a tablist (or autocomplete) pattern, others may not (yet).

Even those claiming to support a pattern are sometimes delivering a buggy user experience. This is particularly true regarding ARIA roles: as soon as the role attribute is used, unexpected things may happen (if you are really curious and want to learn more about this, skip ahead and read How screen readers work - and why they seem so buggy).

As such, there are only few examples of ARIA widgets available on the web that truly work in all major browsers and screen readers. And those existing ones often need a lot of complex code to work around known problems.

Non-homogenous behaviour

Besides bugs and unsupported features, the ARIA specification also often is not strictly black or white, leaving it up to the manufacturers of browsers and screen readers to decide how certain functionalities should behave.

So desktop screen reader behaviour varies when interacting with ARIA elements, especially regarding differences between browse and focus modes (if you haven't done this yet, go back and read Screen readers' browse and focus modes).

For example, while all major desktop screen readers announce content associated using aria-describedby in focus mode, some ignore it in browse mode. And while some screen readers announce the associated content right away, others ask the user whether they want to hear it (by pressing a keyboard shortcut). If you are really curious and want to learn more about this, skip forward and read Adding descriptions to elements using aria-describedby.

Another example is aria-hidden. Its specification promises to hide elements from screen readers. The first surprise is that aria-hidden simply does not work on focusable elements in most browsers. The next surprise is that it is very unclear whether aria-hidden should have any effect on elements that are referenced using aria-describedby. If you are really curious and want to learn more about this, skip forward and read Hiding elements from screen readers using aria-hidden.

All this is not because of varying support degrees among modern screen readers or browsers (all of them claim to fully support aria-describedby and aria-hidden), but because of non-homogenous behaviour caused by the manufacturers' different opinions. So which screen reader is doing it "right"? The ARIA specification does not provide an answer.

And as long as no quasi-standard, no ubiquitous convention has been established, working with ARIA is often risky, potentially introducing more problems to a website's accessibility than solving them.

ARIA is good

Let us make this clear: we are not against ARIA, and we certainly do not want to build up a counter-position to the standard bodies like W3C and WAI.

ARIA is exactly what is needed to pave the way for modern accessibility. It often even predicts requirements that lateron are introduced into HTML, like aria-required resulted in the required attribute, or role="dialog" resulted in the <dialog> element.

So ARIA is not the problem - it is the solution. But browser and screen reader vendors need to implement it uniformly, completely, and robustly. As developers, we can push browser and screen reader vendors by filing bugs (and inquiries) whenever we feel that something does not behave the way it is expected.


Since the ARIA standard was introduced in 2014, browser support has come a long way, so there are indeed quite a few user interaction patterns that can be deemed universally supported, for example tablists. For other patterns, we still better reside to implementations not relying on ARIA too much. You will learn more about this throughout the 4th part of this guide, Examples of accessibility patterns, especially regarding Interactive widgets.

And there exist some aria-* attributes that can be used standalone (without role) and are supported by all major browsers and screen readers - more or less homogeneously as well as robustly. So in some specific situations, these attributes can be of real help, but you need to know exactly in which cases. They will be explained in detail in Sensible usage of ARIA roles and attributes.

In general, in our guide, our proposed solutions are based on years of experience. You can be confident that they are known to work well for everybody today and have stood the test of time.