Main Menu

Welcome to the January 2006 edition of our monthly

Accessibility Tip

January 2006

Each month we would like to bring to you a tip on how you can improve the accessibility of your website. Each tip will contain details on a particular issue that faces people with disabilities, how it affects people and what you can do to resolve it.

This month we are discussing acronyms and abbreviations.

The issue

The world is full of acronyms and abbreviations with new ones being added on a daily basis. Some of these abbreviations and acronyms could be considered to be common knowledge, for example NZ (New Zealand) or UK (United Kingdom), but this in not always the case. How we interpret abbreviations and acronyms very much depends on our background and education. Thus we cannot assume that people will know what we mean when we use abbreviations and acronyms on our websites. For example how many people know what CORBA stands for?

Although this issue affects every visitor to your website it has an even greater impact for someone with a visual impairment. Say for example that you had a glossary of terms on your page or somewhere else on your site. It is relatively easy to access such a glossary visually. If you are using a screen reader however it becomes a lot more difficult to navigate to the correct entry in the glossary and then to find your way back again to where you had been before.

What you can do

The first step is to ensure that you expand at least the first instance of any abbreviation or acronym that you use on the site, for example: New Zealand (NZ). This allows somebody using keyboard-only navigation to see the expansion. If you can include a glossary, either on the page or overall for the entire site, then that would be a great help as well.

The next thing to do is to enclose all instances of an acronym or abbreviation with the appropriate <acronym> or <abbr> element and setting the title attribute to the expansion of the acronym or abbreviation. For example:

<p>This is an <abbr title="abbreviation">abbr.</abbr> and
<acronym title="Common Object Request Brokering Architecture">CORBA</acronym> is an acronym.</p>

Using <abbr> and <acronym> elements has two advantages. The first is that most browsers (see below for exceptions) will display the title of these elements when users hover their mouse over the element. The second is that screen readers such as Jaws can read the expansion in place of the abbreviation or acronym when the user chooses. In both cases the user would not have to refer back to the first instance or a glossary to get the meaning of what you are trying to say.

Note that the expansion cannot be accessed if you are not using a mouse. People with mobility impairments may not be able to use a mouse at all. So it is a good idea to still expand the first instance of an abbreviation or acronym.

More information

Microsoft's Internet Explorer does not support the <abbr> element fully. In fact it treats these elements in the same category as <I_made_it_up> elements. These elements cannot be accessed via the Document Object Model (DOM) and cannot be formatted using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Internet Explorer also does not display the title attribute if you hover over the element.

The Jaws screen reader fully supports <abbr> and <acronym> elements in version 4.51 and higher. If correctly set under the verbosity settings Jaws will read out the title attributes of <abbr> and <acronym> elements instead of their content.

It is interesting to note that XHTML2 no longer includes the <acronym> elements and has standardised on the <abbr> element alone. This version of XHTML is not widely used or supported yet so this is one to look out for in the future.

For the moment if you want tooltips and CSS supported for your acronyms and abbreviations it is best to only use <acronym> elements.

Finally of course you always have the option of expanding all of the abbreviations and acronyms on your page. This would remove the need to refer to glossaries and would not depend on the support of the browsers. It could also make the text a lot harder to read. Replace XHTML with "eXtensible HyperText Markup Language" in the second paragraph before this one to see what I mean.

Bruce Aylward, 09 January 2006

About W 3 A

W 3 A provides consultancy and audit services on information accessibility, focussing on Internet accessibility, compliance with the W3C standards and NZ Government Web Guidelines, and website best practice. We have relationships with several charities and government agencies responsible for the interests of the disabled.

Subscription Details

If this tip has been forwarded to you from a friend and you would like to subscribe to receive future editions directly then please use our online subscription form or send an email with subscribe as the subject and containing your name and email address to

If you would prefer to receive this newsletter in the Headstar Text Email Newsletter (TEN) format then please just let us know.

Other issues of the Accessibility Tip are available on our articles page.