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Timothy Foster
Timothy Foster

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How to NOT use aria-label

In light of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I started writing about accessible web components, but that's taking me a lot longer to finish than anticipated 🙃 So for now, here's a quick thing I learned about using (or rather, not using) aria-label!

The aria-label attribute gives a textual name to an HTML element. A close button is a classic example:

<button aria-label="Close">×</button>
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Visually, you would see a "×", which indicates a window will be closed. Meanwhile, someone who uses a screen reader will hear "Close, button", which conveys the same thing. Without the aria-label, they would hear "Times, button" instead, which is rather confusing.

So, aria-label is very useful! However, generally speaking, it isn't the first tool you should reach for when providing a textual representation for an element.

So, let's explore when not to use aria-label!

Elements that can't use aria-label

Don't use aria-label for roles where it isn't allowed!

You can't put aria-label on a span:

<!-- Don't do this! -->
<span aria-label="Apple">Orange</span>
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It might look like visual readers get an orange, while screen readers get an apple, but that's not really what happens here. In fact, what happens is not well-defined nor consistent across browsers and assistive tools.

The span is just one example. The aria-label definition lists many roles for which it is forbidden.

The general rule is that aria-label can only be used on name-assignable roles, which includes interactive elements and not static elements.

Instead, you have a couple of choices:

  • Explicitly assign an interactive role
  • Make the screen reader text visually hidden with CSS
<!-- Assign a role, but also just use a normal button...? -->
<span role="button" aria-label="close">×</span>

<!-- Make the text visually hidden -->
<span class="visually-hidden">Apples</span>
<span aria-hidden="true">Oranges</span>
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Use native HTML instead

Avoid aria-label where regular HTML can be used instead!

HTML is already designed to provide textual representation for virtually anything. As such, you will almost always rely on these mechanisms rather than needing aria-label.

  • The text content of a button is its textual representation (<button>Submit</button>).
  • Images are supplied an alt attribute which is its textual label.
  • Form controls have a corresponding label element to describe them.
  • Figures and tables have figcaption and caption respectively.
  • Even page sections are generally described by their page headings (<h2>, <h3>, etc).

Notably, most of these mechanisms (by default) provide the same text to sighted and non-sighted people alike. So, aria-label is best reserved for when these shouldn't be the same, or for when the sighted representation conveys meaning without text (such as using the "×" symbol to represent "close").

<!-- Avoid this... -->
<table aria-label="Quarterly Earnings">

<!-- ...when you can use native HTML -->
<table><caption>Quarterly Earnings</caption></table>
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Some text is for everyone

Avoid aria-label for text that is valuable to everyone!

Most textual representations provided by HTML are both visible and available for screen readers simultaneously. And that's for good reason:

For example, perhaps there are keyboard shortcuts you want people using screen readers to be aware of (e.g. "Press Esc to exit the modal"). Yet, that text is just as useful to sighted people using a mouse, as they may prefer the alacrity of pressing Esc over moving a mouse to a button.

To hide info like this by default, consider using tooltips or the details HTML element.

So when do I use aria-label?

I wrote about this because I had developed a tendency to overuse aria-label anytime I needed something "for screen readers", and doing so led to web pages that were either non-compliant (failing axe accessibility testing) or less accessible than I thought they were.

As usual, the first rule of using ARIA is to not use ARIA:

  • Don't use aria-label for roles where it isn't allowed!
  • Avoid aria-label where regular HTML can be used instead!
  • Avoid aria-label for text that is valuable to everyone!

Top comments (2)

melnik909 profile image
Stas Melnikov

Thank you for this post! I agree. But unfortunately we haven't proofs why native HTML elements is better than aria-label.

Yes, you're right there are HTML elements which allow to convey information without aria-label. But! People have to know MORE elements than they know. If I need to remember only aria-label that EASIER than remember 10 HTML elements. That is the first point.

Also people don't understand why using aria-label worse than HTML elements. They see the same result. So they don't see the difference between this two points.

Yes, you've told about really good cases. But developers or designer don't think about people who use screen readers and DON'T have vision disabilities. They think about users who have it. That's the second point.

Unfortunately I don't know how to change that in global context. We can personally talk about it but we can't use the tools like news websites to change this situation.

Thank you again!

auroratide profile image
Timothy Foster

Thanks for the feedback! Indeed, I know my personal reach is fairly limited. It is nice that for a couple hours of work, I can solidify a concept in my mind and create a resource I can share in the future.