Nick Lemmon

Accessible Buttons that Look Like Links

August 25, 2020

Semantically, the anchor tag should only be used when clicking on said element navigates the user to a new page. Frequently, developers utilize the <a> for clickable elements, even elements that open modals or trigger other state changes within the current page.

When the wrong element is used, screen reader and keyboard-only users have a tremendous amount of trouble interacting with the page. With React, for example, it's very easy to add an onClick handler to an anchor tag that controls page state rather than the current page. Take the following example:

import React, { useState } from 'react'
import { Modal } from 'src/components'

function MyPage() {
  const [isModalOpen, setModalOpen] = useState(false)

  return (
    <div>
      <h1>I am the best page in the universe</h1>

      <a onClick={() => setModalOpen(true)}>Learn More About The Best Page</a>

      {isModalOpen && (
        <Modal>
          <p>
            Seriously, this is the best page in the universe. If only a
            keyboard-only user could use it.
          </p>

          <a onClick={() => setModalOpen(false)}>Close</a>
        </Modal>
      )}
    </div>
  )
}

Though clicking on "Learn More About The Best Page" will open the modal, there are multiple problems with this implementation:

  1. The anchor tag has the incorrect role to describe its behavior - it should either be a <button> element or have role="button"
  2. Any anchor tag without an href attribute is not keyboard focusable

Solutions

Just Use a Button

Many accessibility advocates, having encountered many inaccessible implementations of button-like links that are not actually links, advocate for a blanket ban on the use of the anchor tag when they do not navigate to a new page. Their argument is generally correct. Where possible, simply use a <button/> instead of an anchor tag for interactive elements that do not navigate the user to a new page.

That being said, there are instances in which a button that looks like a link can be beneficial to the end user. Say, for example, within a paragraph of text a user encounters a link that triggers an action on the page. Depending on your product's CSS architecture, introducing a <button/> could wreak havoc from a styling perspective.

Use a Custom Component

In these scenarios, creating a re-usable component is the best way to prevent the introduction of inaccessible links in to your product.

In order for a button to be interpreted correctly by screen readers and be usable for keyboard-only users, our ButtonLink component must have two key features:

  1. It must be a button semantically by adding role="button" and
  2. It must be keyboard accessible by having a valid href attribute
import React from 'react'

function ButtonLink({ children, onClick }) {
  const handleClick = (e) => {
    e.preventDefault()
    onClick()
  }

  return (
    <a href="#" role="button" onClick={handleClick}>
      {children}
    </a>
  )
}

Critically, this component provides a valid href making it keyboard accessible. Unfortunately, any anchor elements with # do come with some default behavior in the browser. In this example, we avoid the problem by passing in the click event and invoking e.preventDefault() before invoking the passed in onClick handler.

Prevent Future Mistakes

This solution works well, however, there is still some risk that new developers working on your product might introduce inaccessible button-like links in the future. In order to help reduce that risk, introduce a simple console warning in the event an onClick handler is passed to an anchor tag inappropriately. Say, for example, our product has a generic, re-usable, PageLink component:

import React from 'react'
import { Link } from 'react-router-dom'

function PageLink(props) {
  const { to, children } = props

  if (props.onClick) {
    console.warn(
      'Invalid prop `onClick` - avoid attaching click handlers to links. Use the `ButtonLink` component instead.'
    )
  }

  return <Link to={to}>{children}</Link>
}

Wrapping Up

It's important to ensure that all elements within a product can be both interpreted by screen readers and remain interactive for keyboard-only users. Fortunately, by creating a custom, re-usable component and by providing informative warnings, we can greatly reduce the risk of introducing common accessibility bugs.

Nick Lemmon

About Me

I’m a frontend developer in Columbia, Maryland who also happens to have an MSW. I’m also a certified Web Accessibility Specialist!

I’m driven to design and build accessible design systems with a great underlying developer experience in mind.