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Button state and accessibility

Yesterday, we looked at how to use [aria-label] to make icons with no obvious meaning for visually impaired users accessible.

Today, we’re going to look at button state and the [aria-pressed] attribute.

Huge shoutout to Sarah Higley for her awesome article on button state, which heavily informed this article.

What is button state?

In apps, it’s common to have buttons that have an on/off or pressed/not pressed state.

For example, take the Twitter “like” button (which, for :waves hands wildly: reasons is not actually a button, but for this article, we’ll pretend it is).

<button class="fave" aria-label="Favorite"></button>

Maybe you have a few simple styles associated with the .fave class, like this.

.fave {
	background: transparent;
	border: 0;
	font-size: 2em;

When someone clicks the button, you want to show that it’s “active.” That’s the button’s “state.”

Wrong ways to show active state

I often see “active state” classes, like .is-active, added to elements to modify their appearance.

<button class="fave is-active" aria-label="Favorite"></button> {
	color: red;

While this changes the visual appearance of the button, it does not convey any information about the new state to screen reader users.

You might think you can solve this by changing the [aria-label] to say Favorited or something similar.

<button class="fave is-active" aria-label="Favorited"></button>

Unfortunately, changes to the [aria-label] text are not announced by most screen reader/browser combinations.

The accessible way to show active state

To solve this issue, you can use the [aria-pressed] attribute.

This attribute lets screen readers know that a button has “state.” When it has a value of false, the button is not pressed. When it has a value of true, it is.

<!-- This button is NOT active -->
<button class="fave" aria-label="Favorite" aria-pressed="false"></button>

<!-- This button IS -->
<button class="fave" aria-label="Favorite" aria-pressed="true"></button>

You can change the attribute value using the setAttribute() method.

Don’t remove the attribute if the button is inactive. Toggle it from true to false

// The button is active
btn.setAttribute('aria-pressed', true);

// The button is inactive
btn.setAttribute('aria-pressed', false);

You can even hook into it for styling purposes.

.fave[aria-pressed="true"] {
	color: red;

With this approach, you should not change the [aria-label] if you’ve used one. The [aria-pressed] attribute conveys the important information about the button state.

With our “favorite” button example, the button’s label is “Favorite,” and its [aria-pressed] value conveys whether the item is favorited or note.