dai11y 27/02/2023

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Screen Readers support for text level HTML semantics

Steve Faulkner writes about accessibility support for HTML tags such as <strong> (and <b>), <em> (and <i>), and <del>, <ins> and <mark>. (He performed the same analysis 15 years ago – things have moved on a bit since then).

For strong/emphasised text, there is no audible distinction in any of the major screen readers. This is because the underlying Browser Accessibility Tree does not even expose this information to the screen readers, unless an explicit ARIA role=strong/role=emphasis is added. Even then, screen reader software chooses to do nothing with it. ‘Emphasis’ was briefly supported in NVDA but was removed because it is “very much over-used in the wild” and thus was extremely unpopular with users.

It’s worth noting that the less commonly used semantics such as <del> do seem to be supported by JAWS and NVDA, either through a voice change or an explicit “deleted” announcement. However, they don’t seem to be supported by VoiceOver or Narrator.

With the appropriate setting, all major screen readers expose text styles audibly (‘bold’, ‘italic’, ‘strikethrough’ etc), with the exception of VoiceOver on iOS, which gives no indication of text style.

Steve concludes with this:

WCAG SC 1.3.1:Info and Relationships is often cited as a reason why strong and em must be used and Technique H49:Using semantic markup to mark emphasized or special text provides examples of “Using the em and strong elements to emphasize text”. In practice their use does nothing for screen reader users at least, nothing that the i and b elements don’t provide (with their default styles).

Simply put the strong and em are not accessibility supported and therefore should not be a factor in accessing conformance with SC 1.3.1:Info and Relationships. Visually identifying emphasised and important text via CSS styles is an accessibility supported method and will be conveyed to SR users when they have the required settings enabled. This can be achieved by style declarations alone, it does not require the use of elements with particular semantics.  By all means encourage the appropriate use of em and strong elements, but don’t require it.

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