Accessible Dynamic Links

Although hyperlinks are the soul of the World Wide Web, it’s worth using them in moderation. Too many links becomes a barrier for visitors navigating their way through a page. This difficulty is multiplied when the visitor is using assistive technology, or is using a keyboard; being able to skip over a block of links doesn’t make the task of finding a specific link any easier.

In an effort to make sites easier to use, various user interfaces based on the hiding and showing of links have been crafted. From drop-down menus to expose the deeper structure of a website, to a decluttering of skip links so as not to impact design considerations. Both are well intentioned with the aim of preserving a good usability experience for the majority of a website’s audience; hiding the real complexity of a page until the visitor interacts with the element.

When JavaScript is not available

The modern dynamic link techniques rely on JavaScript and CSS, but regardless of whether scripting and styles are enabled or not, we should consider the accessibility implications, particularly for screen-reader users, and people who rely on keyboard access.

In typical web standards-based drop-down navigation implementations, the rough consensus is that the navigation should be structured as nested lists so when JavaScript is not available the entire navigation map is available to the visitor. This creates a situation where a visitor is faced with potentially well over 50 links on every page of the website. Keyboard access to such structures is frustrating, there’s far too many options, and the method of serially tabbing through each link looking for a specific one is tedious.

Instead of offering the visitor an indigestible chunk of links when JavaScript is not available, consider instead having the minimum number of links on a page, and when JavaScript is available bringing in the extra links dynamically. Santa Chris Heilmann offers an excellent proof of concept in making Ajax navigation optional.

When JavaScript is enabled, we need to decide how to hide links. One technique offers a means of comprehensively hiding links from keyboard users and assistive technology users. Another technique allows keyboard and screen-reader users to access links while they are hidden, and making them visible when reached.

Hiding the links

In JavaScript enhanced pages whether a link displays on screen depends on a certain event happening first. For example, a visitor needs to click a top-level navigation link that makes a set of sub-navigation links appear. In these cases, we need to ensure that these links are not available to any user until that event has happened.

The typical way of hiding links is to style the anchor elements, or its parent nodes with display: none. This has the advantage of taking the links out of the tab order, so they are not focusable. It’s useful in reducing the number of links presented to a screen-reader or keyboard user to a minimum. Although the links are still in the document (they can be referenced and manipulated using DOM Scripting), they are not directly triggerable by a visitor.

Once the necessary event has happened, like our visitor has clicked on a top-level navigation link which shows our hidden set of links, then we can display the links to the visitor and make them triggerable. This is done simply by undoing the display: none, perhaps by setting the display back to block for block level elements, or inline for inline elements. For as long as this display style remains, the links are in the tab order, focusable by keyboard, and triggerable.

A common mistake in this situation is to use visibility: hidden, text-indent: -999em, or position: absolute with left: -999em to position these links off-screen. But all of these links remain accessible via keyboard tabbing even though the links remain hidden from screen view. In some ways this is a good idea, but for hiding sub-navigation links, it presents the screen-reader user and keyboard user with too many links to be of practical use.

Moving the links out of sight

If you want a set of text links accessible to screen-readers and keyboard users, but don’t want them cluttering up space on the screen, then style the links with position: absolute; left: -999em. Links styled this way remain in the tab order, and are accessible via keyboard. (The position: absolute is added as a style to the link, not to a parent node of the link – this will give us a useful hook to solve the next problem).

a.helper {
	position: absolute;
	left: -999em;
}

One important requirement when displaying links off-screen is that they are visible to a keyboard user when they receive focus. Tabbing on a link that is not visible is a usability mudpit, since the visitor has no visible cue as to what a focused link will do, or where it will go.

The simple answer is to restyle the link so that it appears on the screen when the hidden link receives focus. The anchor’s :focus pseudo-class is a logical hook to use, and with the following style repositions the link onscreen when it receives the focus:

a.helper:focus, a.helper.focus {
	top: 0;
	left: 0;
}

This technique is useful for hiding skip links, and options you want screen-reader and keyboard users to use, but don’t want cluttering up the page. Unfortunately Internet Explorer 6 and 7 don’t support the focus pseudo-class, which is why there’s a second CSS selector a.helper.focus so we can use some JavaScript to help out. When the page loads, we look for all links that have a class of helper and add in onfocus and onblur event handlers:

if (anchor.className == "helper") {
	anchor.onfocus = function() {
		this.className = 'helper focus';
	}
	anchor.onblur = function() {
		this.className = 'helper';
	}
}

Since we are using JavaScript to cover up for deficiencies in Internet Explorer, it makes sense to use JavaScript initially to place the links off-screen. That way an Internet Explorer user with JavaScript disabled can still use the skip link functionality.

It is vital that the number of links rendered in this way is kept to a minimum. Every link you offer needs to be tabbed through, and gets read out in a screen reader. Offer these off-screen links that directly benefit these types of visitor.

Andy Clarke and Kimberly Blessing use a similar technique in the Web Standards Project‘s latest design, but their technique involves hiding the skip link in plain sight and making it visible when it receives focus. Navigate the page using just the tab key to see the accessibility-related links appear when they receive focus.

This technique is also a good way of hiding image replaced text. That way the screen-readers still get the actual text, and the website still gets its designed look.

Which way?

If the links are not meant to be reachable until a certain event has occurred, then the display: none technique is the preferred approach. If you want the links accessible but out of the way until they receive focus, then the off-screen positioning (or Andy’s hiding in plain sight technique) is the way to go.

About the author

Mike Davies works for Yahoo! Europe as a Web Developer with a focus on web accessibility. Online, he uses the moniker Isofarro and blogs about web accessibility and universality on isolani. His last project in his previous company (Legal & General) was presented at the launch of PAS 78 as a case study into the business benefits of web accessibility.

Photo: Neil Crosby

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