allows portions of the page to be updated without having to refresh and
reload the entire page. It can increase site performance significantly
and provide cutting edge user interfaces. Unfortunately it can also be
a source of concern for delivering fully accessible web sites.
What is AJAX?
AJAX is not a new technology in itself but a new approach to programming websites based on the following web standards:
- HTML / XHTML
The key word is asynchronous – AJAX
applications work ‘behind the scenes’ with the web server to
important role in this process, trading data with the server and
manipulating the information on the page.
Accessibility benefits of AJAX
As well as significantly improving the user experience AJAX applications can also enhance accessibility. For example:
- Auto-suggest dropdowns can help both users with reading difficulties and motor impairments
e.g. City and airport suggestions are offered as users enter text
- Drag & drop sliders can help users with reading difficulties due to their illustrative nature
e.g. A click-and-drag slider is used to filter search criteria
Accessibility issues caused by AJAX
readers aren’t aware of the changes so will read out the unmodified
version of the page. This means screen reader users don’t get the
updated content of the page.
- Screen readers are aware of
the changes but will only read the modified content when they naturally
reach it. This is fine unless the modified content precedes users’
current location. If this happens, they’re unlikely to hear this
- Screen readers start reading the modified page
but from the very top. This means that users have to essentially listen
to all of the page content again. It can be difficult for these users
to know which content has been updated and where in the page this
- Screen readers are automatically taken to
the modified content so users instantly know that page content has been
updated – this can however severely disorientate users.
users might not notice changes that have occurred outside the areas
they’re interacting with. They can therefore miss out on important
information especially if the changed content takes place above their
current location on the page.
Recommendations for AJAX and accessibility
There’s one key question to consider when planning the development of a website and the use of AJAX: Is there a real need to use AJAX?. If the answer is yes, then ensure the following is true to ensure AJAX accessibility is optimised:
- Inform users early in the page that dynamic updates will occur
Not all users are familiar with AJAX
interfaces. Let them know that changes may take place so they can
expect and look for these changes. This is particularly important for
screen reader and magnifier users as they may be unaware that changes
have taken place.
- Highlight the areas that have been updated
subtle changes to highlight areas that have changed, for just a short
period of time, can be most helpful. It will inform users, in
particular those with reading difficulties that updates have taken
- Don’t change the focus
Do not move
the focus of the page to where the change has taken place. Changing the
focus can be disrupting for screen reader and magnifier users
especially if there are no mechanisms to return to the previous
- Offer the option to disable automatic updates
users to manually request page updates, for example by providing links
and/or form buttons to refresh the page on-demand. Screen reader and
magnifier users may be unaware of on-the-page changes. It can also be
difficult for users with reading difficulties to keep up with automatic
updates. If possible, store users’ preferences for requesting page
updates for future visits to the site.
In case of an advanced AJAX application, consider providing an HTML alternative. If the AJAX
application is impossible to use by group of users (e.g. if it relies
on the use of a mouse, such as the drag & drop sliders) then a link
to an HTML alternative is a must.