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How to Set Up Keyboard Navigation for Improved Website Accessibility

By July 10, 2024No Comments7 min read

Ensuring website accessibility is not just a best practice—it’s a necessity. One crucial aspect of web accessibility is keyboard navigation, which allows users to interact with your website using only their keyboard. This feature is essential for individuals with motor disabilities, visual impairments, or those who simply prefer keyboard controls. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore how to set up keyboard navigation to improve your website’s accessibility and comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Why Keyboard Navigation Matters

Before diving into the technical aspects, let’s understand why keyboard navigation is crucial for website accessibility:

  1. Inclusivity: Not all users can operate a mouse or touchpad effectively. Keyboard navigation ensures that these individuals can access your content.
  2. Efficiency: Many power users prefer keyboard shortcuts for faster navigation.
  3. WCAG Compliance: Proper keyboard navigation is a requirement for meeting WCAG 2.1 standards, specifically Success Criterion 2.1.1 (Keyboard).
  4. SEO Benefits: Improved accessibility can positively impact your search engine rankings.

Understanding WCAG Requirements for Keyboard Navigation

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide specific criteria for keyboard accessibility:

  • All functionality must be operable through a keyboard interface (WCAG 2.1.1).
  • No keyboard trap should exist where keyboard focus cannot be moved away from an element (WCAG 2.1.2).
  • The focus order should be logical and intuitive (WCAG 2.4.3).
  • The focus should be visible at all times (WCAG 2.4.7).

Now, let’s explore how to implement these guidelines effectively.

Setting Up Keyboard Navigation: A Step-by-Step Guide

Ensure All Interactive Elements Are Keyboard Accessible

The first step in setting up keyboard navigation is to make sure all interactive elements on your website can be accessed and operated using only the keyboard. This includes:

  • Links
  • Buttons
  • Form inputs
  • Dropdown menus
  • Modal dialogs
  • Custom widgets

To achieve this:

a) Use semantic HTML: Utilize proper HTML elements like <button>, <a>, and <input> instead of generic <div> or <span> elements for interactive components.

b) Add tabindex attributes: For custom widgets that are not natively focusable, add a tabindex=”0″ attribute to make them part of the natural tab order.



<div role=”button” tabindex=”0″ onclick=”performAction()”>Custom Button</div>

c) Implement keyboard event listeners: Ensure that elements respond to keyboard events (like ‘Enter’ or ‘Space’ key presses) in addition to click events.

Example (JavaScript):


element.addEventListener(‘keydown’, function(event) {

  if (event.key === ‘Enter’ || event.key === ‘ ‘) {

    // Perform action




Create a Logical Tab Order

The tab order should follow a logical sequence that matches the visual layout of the page. To achieve this:

a) Structure your HTML correctly: Organize your HTML in a way that naturally flows from top to bottom and left to right.

b) Use tabindex judiciously: Avoid using positive tabindex values as they can disrupt the natural tab order. Stick to tabindex=”0″ for including elements in the tab order or tabindex=”-1″ for programmatically focusable elements.

c) Test thoroughly: Navigate through your entire site using only the Tab key to ensure the order makes sense.

Implement Skip Links

Skip links allow keyboard users to bypass repetitive content (like navigation menus) and jump directly to the main content. To implement skip links:

a) Add a skip link at the beginning of your page:


<a href=”#main-content” class=”skip-link”>Skip to main content</a>

b) Style the skip link to be visually hidden by default and visible on focus:


.skip-link {

  position: absolute;

  top: -40px;

  left: 0;

  background: #000;

  color: white;

  padding: 8px;

  z-index: 100;



.skip-link:focus {

  top: 0;


Ensure Visible Focus Indicators

It’s crucial that users can visually identify which element has keyboard focus. While browsers provide default focus styles, they’re often subtle and may not meet WCAG contrast requirements.

To improve focus visibility:

a) Enhance default focus styles:


:focus {

  outline: 3px solid #4A90E2;

  outline-offset: 2px;


b) Consider using :focus-visible for more precise control:


:focus-visible {

  outline: 3px solid #4A90E2;

  outline-offset: 2px;


Handle Complex Widgets and Custom Components

For complex widgets like dropdown menus, modal dialogs, or custom sliders, additional considerations are necessary:

a) Implement proper ARIA attributes: Use ARIA roles, states, and properties to convey the structure and state of custom widgets to assistive technologies.

Example (Dropdown menu):


<div role=”menu” aria-labelledby=”dropdownButton”>

  <button id=”dropdownButton” aria-haspopup=”true” aria-expanded=”false”>Menu</button>


    <li role=”menuitem”><a href=”#”>Option 1</a></li>

    <li role=”menuitem”><a href=”#”>Option 2</a></li>



b) Manage focus for modal dialogs: When opening a modal, trap the focus within the dialog and return focus to the triggering element when closed.

c) Implement keyboard shortcuts for custom widgets: For example, allow arrow key navigation within a dropdown menu.

Avoid Keyboard Traps

Ensure that users can navigate away from any focusable element using only the keyboard. Common culprits for keyboard traps include:

  • Embedded third-party content (like video players)
  • Poorly implemented modal dialogs
  • Custom form controls

Regularly test your site to identify and fix any keyboard traps.

Provide Keyboard Shortcuts for Frequently Used Actions

While not required by WCAG, keyboard shortcuts can greatly enhance the experience for keyboard users. Consider implementing shortcuts for actions like:

  • Searching
  • Navigating between main sections
  • Accessing help documentation

Ensure that these shortcuts are well-documented and don’t conflict with browser or assistive technology shortcuts.

Test Thoroughly

Testing is crucial to ensure your keyboard navigation implementation is effective:

a) Manual testing: Navigate through your entire site using only the keyboard, ensuring all functionality is accessible and the tab order is logical.

b) Automated testing: Use tools like AllAccessible to identify potential keyboard accessibility issues.

c) User testing: Invite individuals who rely on keyboard navigation to test your site and provide feedback.

Implementing effective keyboard navigation is a cornerstone of website accessibility. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you’ll not only improve the experience for keyboard users but also make significant strides towards WCAG compliance. Remember, accessibility is an ongoing process—regularly review and update your keyboard navigation implementation to ensure it remains effective as your site evolves.

By prioritizing keyboard navigation and overall website accessibility, you’re not just complying with guidelines—you’re creating a more inclusive web experience for all users. This commitment to accessibility can lead to increased user satisfaction, broader reach, and even improved search engine rankings.

As you continue to develop and refine your website, keep keyboard navigation at the forefront of your accessibility efforts. Your users—and potentially your search engine rankings—will thank you for it.

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