It’s Mid-2022 and Browsers (Mostly Safari) Still Break Accessibility via Display Properties

It was late 2020 when I last tested how browsers use CSS display properties to break the semantics of elements.

I had been waiting for Safari to fix how it handles display: contents for four years now, and was excited when the announcement came in June. Then I started testing the latest Safari Technical Preview and the results were not good. That prompted me to give each of Chrome, Firefox, and Safari a fresh run to see how they performed.

The following results are each set in a table with a numbered list following that provides more detail on any cells that are numbered:

Chrome 103–115 / Windows 11
CSS <tr>, <th>, <td> <ul>, <ol>, <dl> <h#> <button>
display: flex
display: grid
display: block
display: inline-block
display: contents 1 2,3 4 5,6
  1. There was a Chrome 113 regression where cell semantics (which have display: contents were removed from the accessibility tree. This was fixed in Chrome 115. 1448706
  2. <ol>s and <ul>s are not treated as lists, but <dl>s perform fine.
  3. There was a Chrome 113 regression where description lists had no list item semantics. This was fixed in Chrome 115. 1448706
  4. There was a Chrome 113 regression where headings no longer conveyed semantics. This was fixed in Chrome 115. 1448706
  5. Shows as a button in the accessibility inspector, but does not receive keyboard focus; cannot be navigated with JAWS 2022 button command (B); can be activated with a mouse, touch, and screen reader virtual cursor. 1366037
  6. As of Chrome 115, still does not receive keyboard focus (so inoperable with keyboard) but now can be activated with screen reader commands.
Firefox 102–113 / Windows 11
CSS <tr>, <th>, <td> <ul>, <ol>, <dl> <h#> <button>
display: flex 1,23
display: grid 1,23
display: block
display: inline-block 4
display: contents 4 5
  1. <th>s with flex and grid are exposed as cells, not headers. 1711273
  2. Using NVDA 2022.1–2023.1, the table reports the wrong number of rows and columns and cannot be navigated with table navigation commands (Ctrl + Alt + ).
  3. Tested in Firefox 113 and all is well.
  4. Inserts text leaf between each list item; NVDA announces each item in the list when navigating by list (L).
  5. Shows as a button in the accessibility inspector, but does not receive keyboard focus; cannot be navigated with NVDA button command (B); can be activated with a mouse, touch, and screen reader virtual cursor; dev tools show a keyboard use warning. 1791648
Safari 15.6–17.0 / macOS 12.4–14.0
CSS <tr>, <th>, <td> <ul>, <ol>, <dl> <h#> <button>
display: flex 111
display: grid 111
display: block 111 3
display: inline-block 111 3
display: contents 211 3,4,10 5,6,7,8,9
  1. VoiceOver announces the wrong column and row count for each table; VoiceOver does not announce column headers when moving between columns; VoiceOver table navigation commands do not work (Ctrl + Option + + ). 239478, 239479
  2. VoiceOver announces the entirety of each row as a run-on and announces no column nor cell counts. This appears to be a regression in Safari 16.5.
  3. VoiceOver does not announce ordered or unordered lists as lists (description lists are fine); VoiceOver does not navigate to ordered or unordered lists with list navigation (Ctrl + Option + + X). 243486, 243373, 259487
  4. VoiceOver announces the entirety of each description list as a run-on. This appears to be a regression in Safari 16.5.
  5. Does not receive keyboard focus; cannot be navigated with VoiceOver button command (Ctrl + Option + + J); can be activated with a mouse. 243486, 255149
  6. As of Safari TP 151, can be navigated with VoiceOver button command (Ctrl + Option + + J) but its accessible name is not announced.
  7. As of Safari TP 152, its accessible name is announced.
  8. Safari 16 has regressed from Safari TP 152; the accessible name is not announced and it has none in the accessibility tree.
  9. In Safari 16.5 it announces as button, can be navigated as a button with VoiceOver only. It can be activated with VoiceOver Ctrl + Option + Space only. It does not accept keyboard focus and so cannot be activated with keyboard alone.
  10. Safari 17 now treats description lists as description lists (no run-on announcement).
  11. Works as expected as of Safari 17.
Chrome 103–115 / Android 12–13
CSS <tr>, <th>, <td> <ul>, <ol>, <dl> <h#> <button>
display: flex
display: grid
display: block
display: inline-block
display: contents 1 2,3 4 5,6
  1. There was a Chrome 113 regression where cell semantics (which have display: contents were removed from the accessibility tree. This was fixed in Chrome 115. 1448706
  2. <ol>s and <ul>s are not treated as lists, but <dl>s perform fine.
  3. There was a Chrome 113 regression where description lists had no list item semantics. This was fixed in Chrome 115. 1448706
  4. There was a Chrome 113 regression where headings no longer conveyed semantics. This was fixed in Chrome 115. 1448706
  5. Does not announce as a button and is not exposed when navigating by controls, but can be activated. Also has no focus style.
  6. As of Chrome 115, still does not receive keyboard focus (so inoperable with keyboard) but now can be activated with screen reader commands.
Safari / iPadOS 15.5–17
CSS <tr>, <th>, <td> <ul>, <ol>, <dl> <h#> <button>
display: flex 16
display: grid 16
display: block 26 3
display: inline-block 26 3
display: contents 1,26 3 7 45
  1. Table data cannot be accessed using VoiceOver when swiping or using read-all, and swiping from within table after using explore-by-touch does not advance to next cell. This appears to be a regression in Safari 16.5 (previously you could at least move through the text). 257458
  2. VoiceOver treats all cells as in column 1 and does not provide column headers. 243474
  3. VoiceOver does not announce ordered or unordered lists as lists (description lists are fine).
  4. Fires on double-tap with VoiceOver.
  5. In Safari 16.5 it announces as button, can be navigated as a button, and activates with and without VoiceOver. It still has no default focus ring.
  6. Works as expected as of Safari 17.
  7. Announces as heading as of Safari 17, but can not be navigated as a heading. 261978

Verdict

Chrome cleaned itself up and has held steady for more than 20 versions. Firefox needs work, but at least saw a tiny improvement. Safari made one tiny improvement but has a much bigger deficit, and I don’t trust it will improve much given its now twice-promised fix for display: contents.

Tests

The following four embedded CodePens are what I used for testing. These do not account for all scenarios or use cases, but at least provide a baseline set of results. They were all created in early 2020. I adapted them by adding horizontal rules between each test since VoiceOver was concatenating some elements with display: contents to the prior element.

Each links to a CodePen debug mode so you can test it directly, without the iframe or wrapper cruft.

HTML Tables

Visit the tables test in debug mode.

See the Pen Tables with Assorted Display Properties by Adrian Roselli (@aardrian) on CodePen.

Lists

Visit the lists test in debug mode.

See the Pen Lists with Assorted Display Properties by Adrian Roselli (@aardrian) on CodePen.

Headings

Visit the headings test in debug mode.

See the Pen Headings with Assorted Display Properties by Adrian Roselli (@aardrian) on CodePen.

Buttons

Visit the buttons test in debug mode.

See the Pen Buttons with Assorted Display Properties by Adrian Roselli (@aardrian) on CodePen.

References

I have not gone through all the old browser bugs, identified outstanding open bugs, nor filed fresh bugs. I just don’t have the energy. I am hoping readers can confirm or deny my findings, however, so if/when I muster that energy I have confirmation these issues aren’t just a failing on my end.

I have written about display properties, tables, and accessibility a bunch over the last few years. Others have also kicked in a pile of posts. This list is not exhaustive.

Update: 15 July 2022

I heard back from someone who works on WebKit (finally) and he confirmed the issues I found with the following bugs:

Update: 22 July 2022

I tested Safari Technology Preview 149 today. No change.

Update: 4 August 2022

I tested Safari Technology Preview 150 today on macOS 12.5. No change.

Update: 6 August 2022

More updates from Tyler Wilcock, namely that three commits have landed in WebKit that address the heading and button examples in this post:

I am thrilled to see the now-rapid progress from Tyler specifically. Compared to the current silence from Apple’s dedicated developer relations arm, past Apple mis-representation of fixes, and years of Apple’s failure to test for these obvious issues, this has been a breath of fresh air.

No idea which Safari Technical Preview will see these updates, but I am hopeful they will make it to Safari 16.

Update: 16 August 2022

I tested Safari Technology Preview 151 today on macOS 12.5.1. No change except a button with display: contents is now partially exposed in one context.

Update: 27 August 2022

I tested Safari Technology Preview 152 today. No change except a button with display: contents now has its accessible name announced.

Update: 11 September 2022

I tested Safari Technology Preview 153 today. No changes.

Update: 12 September 2022

I tested Safari 16 on macOS 12.6 today. It is equivalent to Safari TP 151. Tables with display properties are difficult to impossible to navigate with VoiceOver. Buttons with display: contents have no accessible name and do not activate on Enter. The minor improvements since Safari 15 (and before) are not enough to make buttons or tables accessibility supported on macOS. All this despite the following claim today:

Safari 16 introduces a re-architecture of WebKit’s accessibility support on macOS. […] Safari 16 also greatly improves accessibility support for elements with display:contents by ensuring they are properly represented in the accessibility tree.

And this claim in June 2022:

And this claim in March 2022:

WebKit fixed an accessibility bug with display:contents, which incorrectly hid content from the accessibility tree. This fix makes it possible to freely use this display value to remove a box from the DOM tree, while still including its children. This can be useful when you want to adjust which box is the child of a Flexbox or Grid container, for instance.

I really wish Apple had a dedicated Safari Twitter account instead of hanging its evangelist and/or the open source WebKit project out there to take the heat. That is unfair.

Remember that this is not an excuse to beat up the devs at Apple. If you are doing that, you are being unnecessarily mean to individuals who may have no control over broader organizational decisions. Do not be that guy / person / jerk.

Update: 13 September 2022

I filed an issue to update the Can I Use entry for display: block, and it was merged overnight: #6451: Safari 16 (release version) still broken

The Can I Use flex and grid data comes from the MDN browser-compat-data, so I filed an issue there: #17776 css.properties.display – Safari (thru 16) flex, grid, contents problems

Update: 17 September 2022

Apple’s devrel team came through and filed another PR at Can I Use (while still engaging me in my PR) and undid my changes. The good news is that for the first time Can I Use reflects that Safari 15.x and older never properly supported display: contents, acknowldegment of its prior false claims. The less good news is that both Apple and Can I Use believe that Safari supports display: contents when using it on buttons or tables renders them inaccessible in Safari 16. Clearly we have different ideas of the term supported.

Update: 20 September 2022

Following some informal community polling, Can I Use has restored Safari’s “partial support” entry for display: contents:

The Can I Use table for display contents showing Safari 16, 16.1, and TP all only partially support the feature.
CSS display: contents on Can I Use

My efforts have probably earned me no fans at Apple, though at least one Apple devrel person might agree with the change.

Update: 13 November 2022

No improvements in Safari 16.1. Here I demonstrate how the row and column counts are way off for the tables.

Pressing Ctrl + Option + + T is a quick way to move down the tables and confirm the counts.

Here I am using Chrome 107, Firefox 106, and Safari 16.1 trying to Tab to the <button> with display: contents. It is worth noting that neither adding role="button" nor tabindex="0" will fix this.

Pressing Tab will not get you to a <button> with display: contents in any browser.

Update: 29 November 2022

Promising work on resolving a Firefox bug where <th>s with CSS flex and grid are exposed as cells, not headers:

This revision fixes the problem by moving the th NativeRole logic into the TableCellAccessible class, then calling that logic from both the ARIA grid cell accessible NativeRole and from HTMLTableHeaderCellAccessible, as before. This revision also updates tests reliant on the old behavior, including beefing up an existing test aimed at this bug specifically.

When that deploys it will leave Safari ≤16.1 as the last browser that breaks tables using CSS display properties.

Update: 20 December 2022

Stumbled across this piece of advice on Twitter promoting the use of display: contents:

The HTML <details> element1 cannot become a flexbox or grid container (display: flex and display: grid are ignored). This restriction is specified in the HTML Standard (The <details> element is expected to render as a block box2) and implemented in all browsers. It is possible to work around this limitation with display: contents3. […]

  1. developer.mozilla.org/docs/Web/HTML/Element/details
  2. html.spec.whatwg.org/multipage/rendering.html#the-details-and-summary-elements
  3. mastodon.social/@simevidas/109538578812286095

[…]

This is a case of trying to solve one very specific problem, layout core to an element, with a flamethrower and no regard for what else goes up in flames. In this case it is keyboard accessibility. To demonstrate that, I made a demo:

See the Pen Untitled by Adrian Roselli (@aardrian) on CodePen.

This is the outcome of specs that do not clarify how the content model should (or should not) be affected, browsers that ignore the bug for years, and developers who cannot be bothered to test with the one device attached to all their computers (keyboard, for those reading who never use on for testing).

The CSS display: contents property looks like such a simple salve, but in the end guarantees an access barrier.

Update: 8 April 2023

I tested Safari 16.4 on macOS 12.6.4 today. No changes.

Meanwhile, Chromium has a change ready to go that will allow elements with display:contents to be focused (3910374), which is meant to honor CSSWG issue #2632 stating Elements that have display: contents can still be focused….

David Baron also filed a WebKit bug and requests for Mozilla and WebKit to take a position on display: contents focusability specifically:

Update: 24 May 2023

Safari on iPadOS 16.5 seems to have regressed since I can no longer get to table contents using read-all or swiping when the table has flex, grid, or block. I am forced to use explore by touch to get into the table, and even then I cannot move between cells with swiping. On the bright side, buttons work well now with contents (though I would like a default focus outline).

Safari 16.5 on macOS also appears to have regressed with tables and description lists that have display: contents. Buttons, while improved, are sadly still inaccessible to keyboard users when using contents.

Firefox 113 on Windows fixed a long-standing bug with tables, so congratulations are due there.

Chrome 113 on Windows and Android seems to have decided anything with display: contents must have its semantics stripped. This change may have happened prior to Chrome 113, which is my fault for not testing each release. Either way, tables, lists, and headings are now broken and buttons remain broken.

In response to my social media posts about this today, David Baron promptly filed a Chromium issue: 1448706: elements with display:contents no longer exposed in accessibility tree

Update: 30 May 2023

Within 48 hours of me posting the Chrome regression on Mastodon, folks from the Chrome team (current and past) confirmed the regression, identified the cause, filed an issue, fixed the issue, and queued it to roll out in Chrome 115 (scheduled for 12 July). Thanks to David Baron, Alice Boxhall, and Aaron Leventhal.

While this kind of pro-active bug fix is great to see in action, there is still a significant barrier for users that will take about 3 months and 2+ versions for them to see fixed.

Meanwhile, I filed a new bug against Safari on iPadOS 16.5, Bug 257458 – AX: Tables with display properties are skipped, report wrong col/row counts, which includes the following video:

Video of Safari iPadOS 16.5 navigating assorted tables via swipe-right (with some explore-by-touch to demonstrate cells mid-table). The first 35 seconds demonstrate how a standard table should operate.

In the Safari issue I cite eighteen distinct bugs:

  1. Tables with display: flex on the <tr> cannot be navigated into using swipe gestures (swipe right or left).
  2. Tables with display: flex on the <tr> are skipped when using read-all.
  3. Tables with display: grid on the <tr> cannot be navigated into using swipe gestures (swipe right or left)
  4. Tables with display: grid on the <tr> are skipped when using read-all.
  5. Tables with display: block on the <td> and <th> give the wrong column count.
  6. Tables with display: block on the <td> and <th> announce each <th> with the first <th> when first entering a row.
  7. Tables with display: block on the <td> and <th> announce each column header <th> as a row header.
  8. Tables with display: block on the <td> and <th> announce each column header <th> as column 1.
  9. Tables with display: block on the <td> and <th> announce each <td> with the wrong or no column header.
  10. Tables with display: block on the <td> and <th> announce each <td> as column 1.
  11. Tables with display: inline-block on the <td> and <th> give the wrong column count.
  12. Tables with display: inline-block on the <td> and <th> announce each <th> with the first <th> when first entering a row.
  13. Tables with display: inline-block on the <td> and <th> announce each column header <th> as a row header.
  14. Tables with display: inline-block on the <td> and <th> announce each column header <th> as column 1.
  15. Tables with display: inline-block on the <td> and <th> announce each <td> with no column header.
  16. Tables with display: inline-block on the <td> and <th> announce each <td> as column 1.
  17. Tables with display: contents on the <td> cannot be navigated into using swipe gestures (swipe right or left).
  18. Tables with display: contents on the <td> are skipped when using read-all.

I filed the following additional issues/PRs:

I have low hopes for the MDN Brower Compat charts updating since #17776: css.properties.display – Safari (thru 16) flex, grid, contents problems has been open and untouched since September 2022.

Similarly, Safari issue Bug 239479: AX: Support display:contents for table elements has sat for over a year (filed 18 April 2022).

Update: 7 June 2023

I updated Bug 257458 – AX: Tables with display properties are skipped, report wrong col/row counts to include results of testing with Safari 16.5 and VoiceOver on macOS 12.6.6:

  1. Tables with display: flex on the <tr> cannot be navigated into using table navigation.
  2. Tables with display: flex on the <tr> are skipped when using read-all.
  3. Tables with display: flex on the <tr> cannot be navigated into using swipe gestures.
  4. Tables with display: flex on the <tr> are skipped when using read-all.
  5. Tables with display: block on the <td> and <th> give the wrong column count.
  6. Tables with display: block on the <th> announce each as a cell.
  7. Tables with display: block on the <td> and <th> do not support navigating within a column.
  8. Tables with display: block on the <td> and <th> do not announce column headers.
  9. Tables with display: inline-block on the <td> and <th> give the wrong column count.
  10. Tables with display: inline-block on the <td> and <th> announce the entirety of cells in a row as a single node.
  11. Tables with display: inline-block on the <td> and <th> do not support navigating within a column (because it is treated as one column).
  12. Tables with display: inline-block on the <td> and <th> do not announce column headers.
  13. Tables with display: contents on the <td> and <th> cannot be navigated into using table navigation.
  14. Tables with display: contents on the <td> and <th> are skipped when using read-all.
  15. Tables with display: contents on the <td> and <th> have each row read as a single string of text.

So far I have seen no signals about this from Apple’s WWDC Safari and CSS talk, despite demonstrating some of these properties.

The Safari 17 beta announcement suggests some fixes for display: contents, but not for the issues I cite here. Which is insight that there are likely far more issues than the four types of elements I have tracked in this post.

Update: 21 July 2023

Progress in Safari Technology Preview 174 on macOS. Items 19–33 are addressed. I found two new issues, which are a function of the fixes:

  1. Tables with display: contents on the <td> and <th> can be navigated into using table navigation, but VoiceOver announces each cell as “blank”.
  2. Tables with display: contents on the <td> and <th> do not announce cell contents when using read-all. VoiceOver simply announces the column and row position.

I added these to the Safari bug that has gottent traction. I am not updating the support table owing to regressions I have seen in other TPs. I will update it when and if the fixes come to Safari 17.

I did not test Safari TP on iPadOS as I cannot seem to locate a TP for the platform.

Update: 13 August 2023

More progress in Safari Technology Preview 176 on macOS. The two new bugs I found are fixed. Granted, they should never had made it to the TP where I could find them, but at least I someone (me) caught them.

I did not test on iPadOS nor iPhoneOS. I did not re-test any prior issues for regressions. Apple is not paying me enough (nothing, actually) to do all of its QA.

I am not updating the support table above owing to regressions I have seen in other TPs. I will update it when and if the fixes come to Safari 17. Safari 17 is in beta now, but I am not testing it. I also understand not all Safari 17 features will be supported in macOS 12 or even 13, but I see no reason these fixes would not be. It would be a shame if users would have to upgrade hardware just to use tables for the first time in years.

Update: 14 August 2023

I confirmed that Chrome 115 fixes the regresions I identifed in May. Lists and buttons with display: contents are still broken. This is most obvious with TalkBack where navigating to the sample lists rattles off the entire list as one single string of text.

Update: 22 September 2023

Significant progress in Safari 17 for iPadOS. Tables work now, which is spectacular. I find it odd that calling a native HTML element that only functions correctly in assistive technology years after the issue was reported “spectacular” when it should simply be expected, but here we are.

I did not expect lists to get any update. Apple has made a decision on that which is unlikely to change. It annoys some users, not others, and makes devs grumpy.

Headings with display: contents now announce as headings when you encounter them, but you cannot navigate by them. That is a disappointment because it feels like Safari was so close and Safari Technology Preview 179 on macOS does not have this problem. Which makes this statement not quite accurate:

WebKit for Safari 17.0 fixes our remaining accessibility issues with display:contents.

Buttons continue to not have a focus ring, but all browsers are struggling with this.

Update: 7 October 2023

Very good progress in Safari 17. Tables and description lists are no longer broken when display properties are applied. Buttons with display: contents, however, are still inoperable by keyboard users and problematic for VO users (and I confirmed is also the case in Safari TP 180).

Meanwhile, the heading issue I reported for Safari 17 on iPadOS (261978 – AX: Headings with `display: contents` cannot be navigated) has been marked as a VoiceOver issue with no insight when it will be fixed. But marking it a VoiceOver issue means Safari can claim to have no bug so yay?

Apple seems reasonably confident it has finally fixed its historically years-lagging support (despite prior claims), and so has been doing the rounds suddenly arguing all the other browsers and specs need to fix display: contents issues while using its own claims of (abruptly and questionably) better support to bolster them:

I also filed a PR with Can I Use to amend the one filed by Apple three weeks ago (I was unable to review owing to travel and this is not my job slash no one is paying me).

With Safari almost there on basic support and Apple now pushing for the specs and browsers to agree, after sitting it out for a few years, I am excited that the end is in sight. Which I expect before WCAG 3.

Update: 11 June 2024

Filed a new bug on Safari and how it handles a display property with tables: 275366 – AX: Tables with show/hide rows report wrong counts and block access to some rows in VoiceOver.

While this falls down over display: none versus flex or grid or contents, its still a display property that had been well supported when I first made the example.

After all, who doesn’t like regression testing years-old features with every Safari release?

5 Comments

Reply

I encounter similar issues when I wish to set grid on the body element and display contents on the main element. The main issue I have is implementing a skip to content link that targets the main[display: contents] element :(
I think this should be of interest to the community since the following is a common DOM pattern:

Skipping the main element would really be a shame

Neil Osman; . Permalink
In response to Neil Osman. Reply

part of my comment was sanitized, so here is a demo that illustrates my point
https://codepen.io/WW3/pen/XWEVoqN

Reply

Thank you for posting this and for continuously testing for the current state of things. display: contents seems really valuable as CSS grid becomes more commonplace, but until some of these issues are fixed I’m still going to avoid grid entirely (where feasilbe) in cases where display: contents would be necessary.

Clayton; . Permalink
In response to Clayton. Reply

FWIW, I think an alternate approach might be to test the problematic instances on your audience’s browsers and then decide which cases you can ignore and which cases are problems. But I very much understand the frustration — I have been there for a few years now.

Reply

[…] from the accessibility tree in response to certain display properties, including display: none. It’s Mid-2022 and Browsers (Mostly Safari) Still Break Accessibility via Display Properties by Adrian Roselli covers this in more […]

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