The ARIA Saga Continues

This post is all prompted by Google’s recent addition of ARIA technology to Google news, that I blogged about Yesterday.

My post generated a lot of (unexpected, to me) discussion in the web accessibility community. I feel that I’m much too hard on ARIA in my original posting, because user-facing information about what ARIA does is thin and scattered. I’ve been asked how information about ARIA can be better communicated. Honestly, I don’t feel that the problem, in this case, lies with the developer community. As I said in a comment on my blog entry, the fault is Google’s. Google created a link on Google News and Google Reader to websites enhanced with ARIA. However, it failed to explain what ARIA can do for the user, what software the user must have to take advantage of ARIA, or give any introduction of what changes ARIA brought to Google News. Most users, who have older and out-dated software, will find that the ARIA link does nothing, and leave baffled. Those of us who try and investigate will find information about ARIA directed at developers, that provides little to no information about what ARIA does for us, and how to make it work. When, in my case, I finally found out what ARIA enhanced Google News did, I assumed that was the limit of the technology, and left unimpressed. I think that, at this point, the best thing the Web Accessibility Initiative can do is stress the importance to developers using ARIA of ensuring that the user has software that can support ARIA, and explaining how exactly the ARIA page is different from the non-ARIA page. Perhaps some of this effort should also fall on the shoulders of screen reader programmers; most screen readers have anounced to developers that they support ARIA, but they haven’t explained this feature to their users. Perhaps the WAI could create some sort of user-facing documentation for ARIA that developers could link to whenever they create an ARIA enhanced page; but I’m not really sure that that’s the job of a standards body. As things stand right now, blind users are starting to see ARIA links popping up on accessible websites, trying to find out what ARIA means for them, and coming up confused or empty handed.

My original comment follows:

@Shawn Henry: This seems clear enough, but it’s a document for web developers. To me, the user, this is all just theory. What should probably exist somewhere (and maybe does? Google doesn’t index
everything.) is a page describing websites using the technology, discussing what differences it makes for users (like interaction with google chat, the pop-up menus in gmail, etc),
and what screen reading and browser combos support this technology (the only one I’ve got working
thus far is firefox 3+NVDA; Freedom Scientific says they support it, but something must be broken
on all three of my windows boxes because I just can’t make it work). The people who should probably
write this kind of user document, in fact, are Google. They’ve suddenly presented all screen-reader
users of Google News and Google Reader with a mystery link about “ARIA,” (a link that our sighted
counterparts apparently can’t even see, so we get strange looks when we ask about it) and failed
completely to explain anything at all. When people search for information about ARIA on google
itself, it seems they wind up at either web developer resources, year old discussions of google
reader, or my blog, depending on what keywords they use. IMHO, the way to do this would be to
present a kind of “ARIA information page” the first time the user clicks the ARIA enhanced link,
explaining what software they need to be using, and what extra functionality ARIA ads to the page. Pressing questionmark for help, while an interesting interface enhancement, is just so far removed from anything I would ever think of doing on any normal page, that I won’t try it unless prompted with a “press questionmark for help” message. Otherwise, I’ll go hunting for a help link. Because that’s what you do with web pages: you click links on them.

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