Screen Readers And WAI-ARIA Landmark Roles

After my post about WAI-ARIA document landmark roles, someone asked me why they were so helpful to screen reader users. After all, don’t screen readers already provide shortcut keys for navigating through web pages?

Quick navigation keys

Well, yes they do. Most screen readers use a wide range of quick navigation keys that let you move easily between different elements on the page. Sometimes known as quick nav keys, they can be used to jump between headings, lists, tables, paragraphs and many other types of content. Let’s take lists as an example. Jaws, NVDA and Window Eyes all have quick nav keys for jumping between lists. In Jaws and NVDA it’s the l key, and in Window Eyes it’s the s key. When you use the lists quick nav key, focus jumps straight to the next list on the page. When you land on the next list, the screen reader recognises that it’s a list and tells you how many items it contains. The trouble is that it can’t tell you what the purpose of the list might be. It could be a collection of items in the content, a set of related links, or the main navigation for the site. As far as a screen reader knows, it’s just a list and that’s that.

Document landmark roles

This is where WAI-ARIA document landmark roles really come into their own. The WAI-ARIA specification defines several different types of document landmark role:

  • application
  • banner
  • complimentary
  • contentinfo
  • form
  • main
  • navigation
  • search

Like lists and other page elements, document landmark roles have their own quick nav keys. In NVDA it’s the d key and in Jaws it’s the semi colon. For the moment Window Eyes doesn’t support them though. Using a landmark quick nav key to move through the page, a screen reader will tell you what kind of landmark you’ve arrived at. For example, Jaws will report “Search landmark” or “Navigation landmark”. What makes this so useful is that you’re moving through the page based on the purpose of content, not the type. If we go back to our example of using the lists quick nav key, you can see what a difference a document landmark role can make. Instead of landing on a list and pausing to discover whether it’s a list of navigation links or not, a document landmark role can make it perfectly clear right away.