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Use semantic HTML for easy keyboard wins

Appears in: Accessible to all

By using the correct semantic HTML elements you may be able to meet most or all of your keyboard access needs. That means less time fiddling with tabindex, and more happy users!

Keyboard support for free (and better mobile experiences)

There are a number of built-in interactive elements with proper semantics and keyboard support. The ones most developers use are:

In addition, elements with the contenteditable attribute are sometimes used for freeform text entry.

It's easy to overlook the built-in keyboard support that these elements offer. Below are some example elements to explore. Instead of using your mouse, try using your keyboard to operate them. You can use TAB (or SHIFT + TAB) to move between controls, and you can use the arrow keys and keys like ENTER and SPACE to manipulate their values.

If you have a phone handy, you can see that many times these built-in elements have unique interactions on mobile. Attempting to reproduce these mobile interactions yourself is a lot of work! It's another good reason to stick to built-in elements whenever possible.

Use button instead of div

A common accessibility anti-pattern is to treat a non-interactive element, like a div or a span, as a button by adding a click handler to it.

But to be considered accessible, a button should:

  • Be focusable via the keyboard
  • Support being disabled
  • Support the ENTER or SPACE keys to perform an action
  • Be announced properly by a screen reader

A div button has none of these things. That means you'll need to write additional code to replicate what the button element gives you for free!

For example, button elements have a neat trick called synthetic click activation. If you add a "click" handler to a button, it will run when the user presses ENTER or SPACE. A div button doesn't have this feature, so you'll need to write additional code to listen for the keydown event, check that the keycode is ENTER or SPACE, and then run your click handler. Ouch! That's a lot of extra work!

Compare the difference in this example. TAB to either control, and use ENTER and SPACE to attempt to click on them.

If you have div buttons in your existing site or application, consider swapping them out for button elements. button is easy to style and full of accessibility wins!

Another common anti-pattern is to treat links as buttons by attaching JavaScript behavior to them.

<a href="#" onclick="// perform some action">

Both buttons and links support some form of synthetic click activation. So which should you choose?

  • If clicking on the element will perform an action on the page, use <button>.
  • If clicking on the element will navigate the user to a new page then use <a>. This includes single page web apps that load new content and update the URL using the History API.

The reason for this is that buttons and links are announced differently by screen readers. Using the correct element helps screen reader users know which outcome to expect.

Check whether code samples should use buttons or links
See <a href="https://webaim.org/intro/" rel="noopener">WebAIM's Introduction to Web Accessibility</a> for more information.

Should this sample use a button or a link?

This sample should use a link. The sample is correct.

When selected, the element navigates the user to another page on a different domain, so a link is semantic.

See the <a href="/semantics-and-screen-readers">Semantics and screen readers page</a> for more information.

Should this sample use a button or a link?

This sample should use a link. The sample is correct.

When selected, the element navigates the user to a different page on the same domain. No matter where a resource is located, use a link to semantically indicate navigation.

When selected, this element opens a modal dialog:

<a href="#" onclick="openDialog()">

Should this sample use a button or a link?

This sample should use a button. The sample is incorrect.

When selected, the element runs a function that opens a modal dialog on the same page; since the element isn't navigating the user to a separate page, a button is semantic.

When selected, this element opens a navigation menu:

<a href="#" onclick="openNavMenu()">

Should this sample use a button or a link?

This sample should use a button. The sample is incorrect.

When selected, the element runs a function that opens a navigation menu on the same page. Opening the menu is an action, so a button is semantic.

This code renders a horizontal navigation menu at the top of a website:

<nav>
<button>About</button>
<button>Services</button>
<button>Work</button>
<button>Contact</button>
</nav>

Should this sample use buttons or links?

This sample should use links. The sample is incorrect.

The elements in the <nav> menu navigate the user to other pages. Those pages may be separate resources in a static site, or they may be views in a single-page application. Either way, since the user is navigating somewhere else, links are semantic.

Styling

Some built-in elements, in particular <input>, can be difficult to style. With a bit of clever CSS you may be able to work around some of these limitations. The (hilariously named) WTFForms project contains an example stylesheet that demonstrates a number of techniques for styling some of the tougher built-in elements.

Next steps

Using built-in HTML elements can greatly improve the accessibility of your site, and significantly cut down on your workload. Try tabbing through your site and look for any controls which lack keyboard support. If possible, switch them out for native HTML alternatives.

Sometimes you may find an element that doesn't have a counterpart in HTML. That's okay! Read on to learn how to add keyboard support to custom interactive controls using tabindex.

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