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HTML 5 and accessibility

Alex Christie

5 May 2010

I’ve written previously about HTML 5 and the new possibilities that it offers. But how will HTML 5 affect web accessibility?

HTML 5 has so far received limited support from the most commonly used browsers, with the most HTML 5 support being offered by Safari (Webkit based browsers) and Opera (Presto based browsers), followed by Firefox (Gecko based browsers).html5

A well-built web page, typically has a good heading structure and utilises the full heading hierachy i.e. <h1> to <h6> tags. This is good for accessibility, because it allows screen readers to easily jump between headings. A good example of where this proves useful, is for blind users. Who may be using the various headings and sub-headings to find a relevant piece of information.
A good and appropriate use of headings is also good for SEO. But HTML 5 seemingly obliterates this commonly viewed good practice, through the introduction of the <section> and <article> tags.

Basically with HTML 5, it is now possible to have more than one <h1> tag on a page. How can this be possibly? Well browsers and assistive technologies will derive the level of importance of each of the <h1> tags, from the nesting of the <section> and <article> tags.

The complications this could cause, may mean that the use of multiple <h1> tags within a single page will not happen overnight – and may take a few years to become the standard norm. With the prefered view that the traditional heading hierachy (h1h6) should be used in conjunction with the new HTML 5 <section> and <article> tags, during this transition phase.navigation

Quite interesting is how the new HTML 5 <nav> tag will aid accessibility. In particular, how it will mean the end of having to provide a skip navigation feature. This is because the <nav> tag will identify to browsers and assistive technologies, where the navigation elements sit on a page. Therefore this section can easily be skipped.

Overall, HTML 5 will be beneficial to web accessibility, because it will lead to the standardisation of common elements and sections, that are found on most, if not all, web pages (e.g. header, footer, navigation etc). This will replace the need to use a series <div> containers (which are usually inconsistantly named due to loose or non defined naming conventions), to construct a web page’s structure.

The problem with this method of construction is that it fails to provide browsers or assistive technologies like screen readers, any real and beneficial information about the type of content that these containers contain and how these containers are arranged on the screen in relation to each other.
HTML 5 aims to change this.

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