Interpreting ‘headings’ in WCAG 2.0 SC 1.3.1, SC 2.4.6, and SC 2.4.10

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This piece has been prompted by

  1. Thread: Why is WCAG 2.0 criterian 2.4.6. only level AA?
  2. CommonLook - Defining "Heading" in HTML and PDF

When does SC 2.4.6 (AA) apply?

Consider 2 Web pages of say, ABC Company: a Products page and a Services Page. If both pages have an h1 heading (apart from page title) that says "ABC Company" and not "Products we offer" and "Services from ABC Co.", then that violates SC 2.4.6 because the heading does not describe the topic. (I assume every product and service is marked up as an h2 with related details and links on each of the 2 pages respectively.)

Alternatively, setting page title (TITLE element) along the lines of "ABC Co - Products" and "ABC Co - Services" respectively for the 2 pages would ensure compliance with SC 2.4.2.

 

When does SC 2.4.10 (AAA) apply?

The "Understanding SC 2.4.10" text is quite relevant and useful in this context, and I encourage you to read it. As stated there, it may be unusual to use headings in a personal letter, so SC 2.4.10 does not apply to a letter; neither will SC 2.4.6 because there are no headings in the letter. But because text in the letter is laid out as paragraphs, the letter should comply with SC 1.3.1.

Now consider a research paper with sections like: Abstract, Objective, Background, Methodology, Results, and Conclusion. It is possible these are not styled or marked up as headings. They could be numbered 1, 2, 3, etc. Every section may have paragraphs like 3.1, 3.2, etc. This too is a structure that meets SC 1.3.1.

The research paper complies with SC 2.4.10 as headings are indeed used to organize content though they are not marked up or styled differently from the rest of the research text.

If the paper had no section markers (like Abstract, Objective, Background, etc.) at all and the entire research text were placed as sequential paragraphs, it would fail SC 2.4.10.; and SC 2.4.6 would be inapplicable because it has no headings, like the letter.

 

Now both together: SC 2.4.6 and SC 2.4.10

As the section headers in the above research paper are not marked up as headings, it seems SC 2.4.6 does not apply to the paper. Certainly marking them up as headings would be good for accessibility and usability for all, but that is at the author's discretion. That's why it is necessary to separate SC 2.4.6 from SC 2.4.10. Indeed, if they are marked up as headings, then both SC 2.4.6 and SC 2.4.10 apply.

But here is a poser: if section headings (that are not marked up as headings, as in above research paper) are used to organize content, then doesn't one have to test if these headings describe the topic of the content that follows? Does test of "description of topic" apply only when section headings are marked up as headings?

So it appears for now that if section headings are used to organize content, and these are indeed marked up as headings, then both SC 2.4.10 and SC 2.4.6 apply. If they are not marked up as headings, then only SC 2.4.10 applies.

If section headings are styled differently from the text but not marked up as headings then it is a failure of SC 1.3.1 (A).

 

Meaning of "heading"

I do not think there is a difference in the meaning of the term "headings" as used in HTML4 or HTML 5 or the PDF specs. Essentially they all refer to section headers.

My view is that one should not do too much hair splitting. Headings are headings, like headings in a newspaper (some big, some small) or headings in a text book for chapters and sections within a chapter. Certainly conveying structure and hierarchy is the main point, but one should use discretion and might occasionally need to mark up something else on the page as a heading; e.g., a promotional offer like "Offer valid upto May 14", because it is important text that needs to be brought to the reader's attention for usability reasons. Note, this is not a section heading and may not fit the hierarchy of headings on the page. The purpose is to facilitate human reading; if headings are overdone on a page, it could defeat the purpose of headings.

Refer to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 for WCAG 2 related references above.

By Sailesh Panchang, Deque Systems

Email Sailesh Panchang

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4 comments

  • Becky Leavitt Permalink

    Please disregard my last post.

    I just want to point out a few things about accessibility and usability as it pertains to document headings and distinguishing important text.

    Screen reader users (JAWS, NVDA, etc.) have the ability to use short cut commands to find out information about headings, links, forms, graphics, tables, etc. Many users will pull up a list of headings to help them understand the structure of the document. So it is important to have a clear heading structure (outline).

    Also, It is important to only have one “H1” reserved for the main title of each document or web page and begin your section headers with “H2” making sure that subsequent headings are nested hierarchically (i.e. no skipping of heading levels).

    In PDF files:

    • Some screen reading software will read “TITLE” or “H” tags as “Heading 1″ and will also read “H1” as “Heading 1″ which is confusing.

    • To help with structure, there is a bookmark feature that is similar to a table of contents. If documents are longer than 9 pages, there should be bookmarks.

    As for distinguishing important text, JAWS (not sure about others) will let users know the formatting of a phrase or word so most assume bolded information is important. This is based on the preferences the users have set. If they have this feature turned off, they can still use a keystroke to get the information.

  • Becky Leavitt Permalink

    I just want to point out a few things about accessibility and usability as it pertains to document headings and distinguishing important text.

    Screen reader users (JAWS, NVDA, etc.) have the ability to use short cut commands to find out information about headings, links, forms, graphics, tables, etc. Many users will pull up a list of headings to help them understand the structure of the document. So it is important to have a clear heading structure (outline).

    Also, It is important to only have one reserved for the main title of each document or web page and begin your section headers with making sure that subsequent headings are nested hierarchically (i.e. no skipping of heading levels).

    In PDF files:

    • Some screen reading software will read or as “Heading 1” and will also read as “Heading 1” which is confusing.

    • To help with structure, there is a bookmark feature that is similar to a table of contents. If documents are longer than 9 pages, there should be bookmarks.

    As for distinguishing important text, screen reading software will let users know the formatting of a phrase or word so most assume bolded information is important…use not . This is based on the preferences the users have set. If they have this feature turned off, they can still use a keystroke to get the information.

  • Sailesh Permalink

    Duff,

    You are right and I too believe headings should only expose structure and hierarchy and consistently at that. Yes they should be reserved for ‘section headings’.

    In fact I am opposed to skipping levels too as it makes me wonder ‘did I miss something?’ and navigate back to check.

    But alas WCAG 2 does not consider this a failure.

    So I have kind of tempered my opinion lately when Web page authors have sought to mark up one or two pieces of important text on a page (like product promotional content for instance) as a heading and suggested they consider say h5 or h6. The above piece does state this is solely for usability … to aid navigation.

    Yes, it does violate accessibility rules, strictly speaking if you ask me.

    One option in HTML could be

    This works with Firefox and recent versions of JAWS.

    Content marked up as EM or STRONG too are not distinguishable with screen reading technology.

    So today headings markup is still the most widely supported alternative.

    In the context of large PDF docs or even long Web pages, if there are several pieces of important text, then using heading to mark them up is not the solution. Well, if every (or several) product(s) did have an associated promotional message, then it could consistently be marked up as a header. It would be correct if it were indeed a section header. Else the best in the circumstances, that the accessibility auditor might choose to overlook.

    So do PDF techniques offer a method to mark up important text in a manner that is accessibility supported?

    Thanks,

    Sailesh

  • Duff Johnson Permalink

    Sailesh,

    Thanks for your reply to my post.

    As I see it, your usage of heading levels confuses “importance” with structure.

    While I agree that the purpose, as you conclude, is to “facilitate human reading”, I think that in the accessibility context, that means (among other things) specific attention must be paid to systems associated with reading. It was my impression that such was WCAG 2.0’s intention as well.

    In both PDF and HTML5 the definition of heading levels do not mention “importance”. The authors chose different definitions compared with the authors of HTML4, and in fact, explicitly rejected the text of HTML4. The question you aren’t asking is: why?

    Here’s the more interesting question for WCAG conformance purposes. Is it the intent of WCAG 2.0 1.3.1 (or other SC) that users trust heading levels to perceive the document’s structure and relationships or not? This isn’t hair-splitting.

    I’m not against illogical heading levels per se; I just don’t see how a document with a structure that cannot be reliably perceived or navigated with AT other than as a 3rd class citizen can conform with the normative language of 1.3.1 (yea, or 2.4.3 for that matter).

    Obviously, the severity of the failure is a function of the size/complexity of the content. For the vast majority of HTML web pages of a few hundred or thousand words, skipping from H2 to H5 is generally relatively trivial.

    Consider this: in PDF files with dozens, hundreds or thousands of pages of content a valid structure is the only source of accessible content-based navigational information apart from page number.

    Duff Johnson

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