ARIA Landmark Roles in 5 Minutes


There are lots of elements in play when trying to make web sites and apps accessible, but correct use of ARIA roles in HTML is straightforward and has big impact.


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The recent results for WebAIM’s survey study of screen reader users reminded me of two things:

Paraphrased: Web accessibility is a complex subject, but using ARIA landmark roles alone can give us a good start.

ARIA’s Roles Model

WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative’s Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite, whew) “provides a framework for adding attributes to identify features for user interaction, how they relate to each other, and their current state.” I’m not going to delve into all of what it encompasses because that is a lot.

Let’s just talk about roles for now. Using the role attribute in an HTML element is a way of explicitly declaring what it does in the HTML document. What its purpose is. What it means in this great universe of web stuff. Like this:

<main role="main">
<nav role="navigation">

Four Categories of Role

There are a lot of defined roles in ARIA, meant for accomplishing different things. Let’s focus in further.

There are four categories of role:

  1. abstract: which you can’t use directly anyway, so let’s plug our ears and move on
  2. widget: which you use if you’re building ARIA-enhanced “widgets”, we’re not today, so onward!
  3. document structure: “structures that organize content in a page”: useful, but, still, let us onward…
  4. landmark: “regions of the page intended as navigational landmarks”, ding ding ding! These are signposts we can easily add to each and every HTML document we make.

There are Eight Landmark Roles

There are only eight (8) landmark roles to master. Fewer, really, because not all are applicable to all things:

  • application: Defines a “region declared as a web application” (versus a content-y web document). Puts certain screen readers in a particular application mode. Don’t use it unless you know what you’re doing.
  • banner: A site-level region, typically including logo, headings.
  • complementary: An area of content within a page that is related to the main content, but would stand alone separate from it.
  • contentinfo: Typically contains metadata about the main document, with copyright info, utility links, etc. Typically assigned to a footer element in applied usage.
  • form: What it sounds like. Opinions differ, but I consider <form role="form"> to be redundant.
  • main: The main content of the document.
  • navigation: An element containing navigation, like you’d expect.
  • search: An element containing search functionality.

Four Essential Landmark Roles

I am of the opinion that you can get excellent bang for the accessibility-improvement buck by simply using the following four ARIA landmark roles in every HTML document you produce:

  • banner: Stick this role on the <header> or other element that wraps the masthead or main banner of the page. Done.
  • main: Put this role on the element containing the main, unique content of the page. That might be an article or blog post, for example. In writing this post I realized that my main role was poorly assigned on my site’s templates. It’ll be fixed by the time you see this.
  • contentinfo: Stick it on your main site footer.
  • navigation: Stick it on your navigation elements.

With the exception of navigation, each of these roles should appear only once per document.

Am I doing it right?

Go grab the tota11y toolkit and quickly check any page. It has a section for Landmarks. Easy peasy!

p.s.: This isn’t the first I’ve spoken of this.


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