WAI-ARIA, the W3C protocol for making rich internet applications more accessible, is gaining much momentum (Read the ARIA FAQ). Even though ARIA isn’t entirely finalized, it is currently supported in most of the major browsers and screen readers. New versions of browsers and assistive technologies are providing better and more extensive support with each release. Industry leaders, such as IBM and Mozilla, are pushing ARIA’s great momentum.
Implementing ARIA is getting easier. Tutorials and examples are being released each day. Common scripting libraries are providing better support – Dojo, YUI, and GWT have native support, with JQuery and many others beginning implementation of ARIA.
Developers can currently implement most of ARIA into their web applications with tremendous increases to accessibility.
Internet Explorer’s Non-standard Implementation
Perhaps the biggest barrier to ARIA implementation is that it is not yet supported in Internet Explorer. It’s difficult to truly recommend a technology that does nothing in the most popular web browser. The standards and accessibility community was thrilled to hear that Internet Explorer 8 will support ARIA. However, this excitement is being tempered by the fact that Microsoft is currently implementing ARIA in a non-standard way.
I will not provide great technical detail into what Microsoft is doing (Aaron Leventhal has provided the details), but in short, there are two major differences in the IE8 implementation of ARIA when compared to what the spec requires and what is supported by all other major browsers. The current beta of Internet Explorer 8 requires a different mechanism and syntax for setting ARIA properties and does not properly update certain page elements when ARIA properties are dynamically changed.
Suffice it to say that Microsoft’s non-standard implementation of ARIA will make it more difficult for developers to implement an ARIA solution that works universally across browsers and assistive technologies. If developers must choose between an ARIA solution that works only in Internet Explorer or one that only works in every other browser, or if they must implement difficult and often unreliable mechanisms to account for specific browsers and even versions of browsers, then the reality is that many web developers will simply not implement ARIA or accessibility at all. And that would result in decreased accessibility for people with disabilities.
A Call for Action
We, therefore, encourage Microsoft to increase their commitment to standards and to accessibility by implementing Internet Explorer 8 ARIA support according to the specification and the ARIA User Agent Implementation Guidelines. We also encourage all browser and assistive technology vendors and even web developers to look further into the great benefit that ARIA can provide for people with disabilities and implement it where necessary.