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(N) Forms

Stick a Label On It that says ‘I Am Accessible!’

Without doubt, one of the most useful tags you can use to make a form more accessible is the <label> tag. Some screen readers can get extremely confused when you start moving the text that relates to a given form input too far away from it. With the <label> tag, you can start to be a little more adventurous and still feel reasonably happy that your form will be accessible.

What does the label do?

The label is a signpost. It tells the browser/user agent/screen reader: "Hey, you see that form input over there? The one called ‘firstname’? Well, that belongs to me and make no mistake about it". Or, as you would have it in the more sober world of HTML:

<label for="firstname">First Name</label> <input type="text" name="firstname" id="firstname">

It creates an unambiguous link between the text and the input which is only broken if you introduce some sloppy markup (notably, by copy-pasting and forgetting to change some ids - remember, ids must be unique, you cannot have two elements on any page sharing the same id).

If you so desired, you could now move the text around and many (but not all) assistive devices would still understand what text relates to the form input:

<input type="text" name="firstname" id="firstname"> <label for="firstname">First Name</label>

There is another fringe benefit of using the <label> tag that might not be immediately obvious - by adding this tag, many browsers will allow you to click on the text contained in the <label> tag to focus on the input. This is particularly useful for the likes of checkboxes and radio buttons which have a very small hit area ordinarily:
click-me-anywhere

Where Can I use a Label?

The <label> tag can be used on almost every form element, with the exception of buttons (the control comprises the associated text - no link to anything external is required). Below is a chart of form elements with examples of this handy little tag being put to use:

Using Labels in Forms
Sample Code

<label for="firstname">Name:</label> <input name="firstname" id="firstname" type="text">




<label for="fall07">Fall 07: </label>
<input name="quarter" id="fall07" type="checkbox" value="fall07"> <br>
<label for="winter07">Winter 07: </label>
<input name="quarter" id="winter07" type="checkbox" value="winter07"> <br>
<label for="spring07">Spring 07: </label>
<input name="quarter" id="spring07" type="checkbox" value="spring07"> <br>
<label for="summer07">Summer 07: </label>
<input name="quarter" id="summer07" type="checkbox" value="summer07">

<label for="group">Group:</label>
<select name="group" id="group>
<option selected="selected" label="none" value="none">none</option>
<option label="cg1a" value="val_1a">Selection group 1a</option>
<option label="cg1b" value="val_1b">Selection group 1b</option>
<option label="cg1c" value="val_1c">Selection group 1c</option>
<option label="cg2a" value="val_2a">Selection group 2a</option>
<option label="cg2b" value="val_2a">Selection group 2b</option>
</select>

<label for="female">Female: </label>
<input name="gender" id="female" type="radio" value="female">
<label for="male">Male: </label>
<input name="gender" id="male" type="radio" value="male">

<label for="feedback">Feedback:</label>
<textarea name="feedback" id="feedback" cols="20" rows="5"></textarea>


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Grouping Elements Naturally

Heard of <fieldset> and <optgroup> before? No? Well let us introduce you to...

The Fieldset Entity

If you are presented with a list of 50 seemingly unrelated checkboxes to tick in a survey it’s very daunting. I wouldn’t bother - would you? But there is a saying ‘Divide and Conquer’, and it has a friend in the HTML entity <fieldset>.

Using fieldset you chunk up your 50 questions into, say, 5 clearly identifiable groups of topics, each with 10 properties/attributes. You increase the usability/accessibility by making the page clearer to the sighted user, or the user who may have cognitive difficulties.

How much it helps blind users is questionable as screen reader support for these elements is patchy (where present at all) and even if they were supported, it’s even more doubtful how easy it would be for the user to access the semantic meaning of these items. But … just because these elements are not fully supported by assistive devices now is no excuse not to use them. Get into good practices now and when the assistive technology can do something useful with it you can pat yourself on the back for being so forward-thinking.

An example of the fieldset in use (and its related entity legend):

Sample Code
Choose Quarters



<fieldset>
<legend>Choose Quarters</legend>
<label for="fall08">Fall 08: </label>
<input name="quarter" id="fall08" type="checkbox" value="fall08"> <br>
<label for="winter08">Winter 08: </label>
<input name="quarter" id="winter08" type="checkbox" value="winter08"> <br>
<label for="spring08">Spring 08: </label>
<input name="quarter" id="spring08" type="checkbox" value="spring08"> <br>
<label for="summer08">Summer 08: </label>
<input name="quarter" id="summer08" type="checkbox" value="summer08"> <br>
</fieldset>


Note: The fieldset can be used to group together any variety of form input elements - not just groups of the same type as detailed above. It’s also perfectly legal to use nested fieldsets, if you so desire, as shown below:

Personal Details
Address Details
Telephone Details

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The Optgroup Element

In the same way that you can logically group related form controls, you can use the <optgroup> tag to group options (predictably) used in a <select> tag. Let’s take a look at the markup:

<select name="choice">
<option selected="selected" label="none" value="none">none</option>
<optgroup label="Group 1">
   <option label="cg1a" value="val_1a">Selection group 1a</option>
   <option label="cg1b" value="val_1b">Selection group 1b</option>
   <option label="cg1c" value="val_1c">Selection group 1c</option>
</optgroup>
<optgroup label="Group 2">
   <option label="cg2a" value="val_2a">Selection group 2a</option>
   <option label="cg2b" value="val_2a">Selection group 2b</option>
</optgroup>
</optgroup>
</select>

You see what’s happening? The drop-down list has been grouped by group numbers, in the example above. Some browsers are able to render this information on screen, others ignore it. But like the fieldset example above, just because not all browsers or assistive devices can currently pick up this extra information is no reason not to use it.

browser samples of optgroup

Note: Don’t get confused between the <label> tag and the label attribute (which is only used on the <optgroup> tag)!

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How do I change the Style?

You can easily change your form's look by using an external css. Insert the following code at the top of the page before </head>.

<link href="http://www.calstatela.edu/accessibility/form.css" type="text/css" rel="stylesheet">

The form source is calling for "whiteform" as shown below. This is all that is needed to change the style.

<form id="whiteform" action="..." method="post">
<fieldset>
<legend>Personal Information</legend>
<label for="name">Name:</label><input name="name" id="name" type="text">
<br>
...

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Last Update: 09/25/2012