Accessibility in React

In our final tutorial article, we'll focus on (pun intended) accessibility, including focus management in React, which can improve usability and reduce confusion for both keyboard-only and screen reader users.


Familiarity with the core HTML, CSS, and JavaScript languages, knowledge of the terminal/command line.

Objective: To learn about implementing keyboard accessibility in React.

Including keyboard users

At this point, we've implemented all the features we set out to implement. Users can add a new task, check and uncheck tasks, delete tasks, or edit task names. Also, they can filter their task list by all, active, or completed tasks.

Or, at least, they can do all of these things with a mouse. Unfortunately, these features are not very accessible to keyboard-only users. Let's explore this now.

Exploring the keyboard usability problem

Start by clicking on the input at the top of our app, as if you're going to add a new task. You'll see a thick, dashed outline around that input. This outline is your visual indicator that the browser is currently focused on this element. Press the Tab key, and you will see the outline appear around the "Add" button beneath the input. This shows you that the browser's focus has moved.

Press Tab a few more times, and you will see this dashed focus indicator move between each of the filter buttons. Keep going until the focus indicator is around the first "Edit" button. Press Enter.

The <Todo /> component will switch templates, as we designed, and you'll see a form that lets us edit the name of the task.

But where did our focus indicator go?

When we switch between templates in our <Todo /> component, we completely remove the elements from the old template and replace them with the elements from the new template. That means the element that we were focused on no longer exists, so there's no visual cue as to where the browser's focus is. This could confuse a wide variety of users — particularly users who rely on the keyboard, or users who use assistive technology.

To improve the experience for keyboard and assistive technology users, we should manage the browser's focus ourselves.

Aside: a note on our focus indicator

If you click the "All", "Active", or "Completed" filter buttons with your mouse, you won't see a visible focus indicator, but you will do if you move between them with the Tab key on your keyboard. Don't worry — your code isn't broken!

Our CSS file uses the :focus-visible pseudo-class to provide custom styling for the focus indicator, and the browser uses a set of internal rules to determine when to show it to the user. Generally, the browser will show a focus indicator in response to keyboard input, and might show it in response to mouse input. <button> elements don't show a focus indicator in response to mouse input, while <input> elements do.

The behavior of :focus-visible is more selective than the older :focus pseudo-class, with which you might be more familiar. :focus shows a focus indicator in many more situations, and you can use it instead of or in combination with :focus-visible if you prefer.

Focusing between templates

When a user changes the <Todo /> template from viewing to editing, we should focus on the <input> used to rename it; when they change back from editing to viewing, we should move focus back to the "Edit" button.

Targeting our elements

Up to this point, we've been writing JSX components and letting React build the resulting DOM behind the scenes. Most of the time, we don't need to target specific elements in the DOM because we can use React's state and props to control what gets rendered. To manage focus, however, we do need to be able to target specific DOM elements.

This is where the useRef() hook comes in.

First, change the import statement at the top of Todo.jsx so that it includes useRef:

import { useRef, useState } from "react";

useRef() creates an object with a single property: current. Refs can store any values we want them to, and we can look up those values later. We can even store references to DOM elements, which is exactly what we're going to do here.

Next, create two new constants beneath the useState() hooks in your Todo() function. Each should be a ref – one for the "Edit" button in the view template and one for the edit field in the editing template.

const editFieldRef = useRef(null);
const editButtonRef = useRef(null);

These refs have a default value of null to make it clear that they'll be empty until they're attached to their DOM elements. To attach them to their elements, we'll add the special ref attribute to each element's JSX, and set the values of those attributes to the appropriately named ref objects.

Update the <input> in your editing template so that it reads like this:


Update the "Edit" button in your view template so that it reads like this:

  onClick={() => setEditing(true)}
  Edit <span className="visually-hidden">{}</span>

Doing this will populate our editFieldRef and editButtonRef with references to the DOM elements they're attached to, but only after React has rendered the component. Test that out for yourself: add the following line somewhere in the body of your Todo() function, below where editButtonRef is initialized:


You'll see that the value of editButtonRef.current is null when the component first renders, but if you click an "Edit" button, it will log the <input> element to the console. This is because the ref is populated only after the component renders, and clicking the "Edit" button causes the component to re-render. Be sure to delete this log before moving on.

Note: Your logs will appear 6 times because we have 3 instances of <Todo /> in our app and React renders our components twice in development.

We're getting closer! To take advantage of our newly referenced elements, we need to use another React hook: useEffect().

Implementing useEffect()

useEffect() is so named because it runs any side-effects that we'd like to add to the render process but which can't be run inside the main function body. useEffect() runs right after a component renders, meaning the DOM elements we referenced in the previous section will be available for us to use.

Change the import statement of Todo.jsx again to add useEffect:

import { useEffect, useRef, useState } from "react";

useEffect() takes a function as an argument; this function is executed after the component renders. To demonstrate this, put the following useEffect() call just above the return statement in the body of Todo(), and pass a function into it that logs the words "side effect" to your console:

useEffect(() => {
  console.log("side effect");

To illustrate the difference between the main render process and code run inside useEffect(), add another log – put this one below the previous addition:

console.log("main render");

Now, open the app in your browser. You should see both messages in your console, with each one repeating multiple times. Note how "main render" logged first, and "side effect" logged second, even though the "side effect" log appears first in the code.

main render                                     Todo.jsx
side effect                                     Todo.jsx

Again, the logs are ordered this way because code inside useEffect() runs after the component renders. This takes some getting used to, just keep it in mind as you move forward. For now, delete console.log("main render") and we'll move on to implementing our focus management.

Focusing on our editing field

Now that we know our useEffect() hook works, we can manage focus with it. As a reminder, we want to focus on the editing field when we switch to the editing template.

Update your existing useEffect() hook so that it reads like this:

useEffect(() => {
  if (isEditing) {
}, [isEditing]);

These changes make it so that, if isEditing is true, React reads the current value of the editFieldRef and moves browser focus to it. We also pass an array into useEffect() as a second argument. This array is a list of values useEffect() should depend on. With these values included, useEffect() will only run when one of those values changes. We only want to change focus when the value of isEditing changes.

Try it now: use the Tab key to navigate to one of the "Edit" buttons, then press Enter. You should see the <Todo /> component switch to its editing template, and the browser focus indicator should appear around the <input> element!

Moving focus back to the edit button

At first glance, getting React to move focus back to our "Edit" button when the edit is saved or cancelled appears deceptively easy. Surely we could add a condition to our useEffect to focus on the edit button if isEditing is false? Let's try it now — update your useEffect() call like so:

useEffect(() => {
  if (isEditing) {
  } else {
}, [isEditing]);

This kind of works. If you use your keyboard to trigger the "Edit" button (remember: Tab to it and press Enter), you'll see that your focus moves between the Edit <input> and "Edit" button as you start and end an edit. However, you may have noticed a new problem — the "Edit" button in the final <Todo /> component is focused immediately on page load before we even interact with the app!

Our useEffect() hook is behaving exactly as we designed it: it runs as soon as the component renders, sees that isEditing is false, and focuses the "Edit" button. There are three instances of <Todo />, and focus is given to the "Edit" button of the one that renders last.

We need to refactor our approach so that focus changes only when isEditing changes from one value to another.

More robust focus management

To meet our refined criteria, we need to know not just the value of isEditing, but also when that value has changed. To do that, we need to be able to read the previous value of the isEditing constant. Using pseudocode, our logic should be something like this:

if (wasNotEditingBefore && isEditingNow) {
} else if (wasEditingBefore && isNotEditingNow) {

The React team has discussed ways to get a component's previous state, and provided an example hook we can use for the job.

Enter usePrevious()

Paste the following code near the top of Todo.jsx, above your Todo() function.

function usePrevious(value) {
  const ref = useRef();
  useEffect(() => {
    ref.current = value;
  return ref.current;

usePrevious() is a custom hook that tracks a value across renders. It:

  1. Uses the useRef() hook to create an empty ref.
  2. Returns the ref's current value to the component that called it.
  3. Calls useEffect() and updates the value stored in ref.current after each rendering of the calling component.

The behavior of useEffect() is key to this functionality. Because ref.current is updated inside a useEffect() call, it's always one step behind whatever value is in the component's main render cycle – hence the name usePrevious().

Using usePrevious()

Now we can define a wasEditing constant to track the previous value of isEditing; this is achieved by calling usePrevious with isEditing as an argument. Add the following inside Todo(), below the useRef lines:

const wasEditing = usePrevious(isEditing);

You can see how usePrevious() behaves by adding a console log beneath this line:


In this log, the current value of wasEditing will always be the previous value of isEditing. Click on the "Edit" and "Cancel" button a few times to watch it change, then delete this log when you're ready to move on.

With this wasEditing constant, we can update our useEffect() hook to implement the pseudocode we discussed before:

useEffect(() => {
  if (!wasEditing && isEditing) {
  } else if (wasEditing && !isEditing) {
}, [wasEditing, isEditing]);

Note that the logic of useEffect() now depends on wasEditing, so we provide it in the array of dependencies.

Try using your keyboard to activate the "Edit" and "Cancel" buttons in the <Todo /> component; you'll see the browser focus indicator move appropriately, without the problem we discussed at the start of this section.

Focusing when the user deletes a task

There's one last keyboard experience gap: when a user deletes a task from the list, the focus vanishes. We're going to follow a pattern similar to our previous changes: we'll make a new ref, and utilize our usePrevious() hook, so that we can focus on the list heading whenever a user deletes a task.

Why the list heading?

Sometimes, the place we want to send our focus to is obvious: when we toggled our <Todo /> templates, we had an origin point to "go back" to — the "Edit" button. In this case however, since we're completely removing elements from the DOM, we have no place to go back to. The next best thing is an intuitive location somewhere nearby. The list heading is our best choice because it's close to the list item the user will delete, and focusing on it will tell the user how many tasks are left.

Creating our ref

Import the useRef() and useEffect() hooks into App.jsx — you'll need them both below:

import { useState, useRef, useEffect } from "react";

Next, declare a new ref inside the App() function, just above the return statement:

const listHeadingRef = useRef(null);

Prepare the heading

Heading elements like our <h2> are not usually focusable. This isn't a problem — we can make any element programmatically focusable by adding the attribute tabindex="-1" to it. This means only focusable with JavaScript. You can't press Tab to focus on an element with a tabindex of -1 the same way you could do with a <button> or <a> element (this can be done using tabindex="0", but that's not appropriate in this case).

Let's add the tabindex attribute — written as tabIndex in JSX — to the heading above our list of tasks, along with our listHeadingRef:

<h2 id="list-heading" tabIndex="-1" ref={listHeadingRef}>

Note: The tabindex attribute is excellent for accessibility edge cases, but you should take great care not to overuse it. Only apply a tabindex to an element when you're sure that making it focusable will benefit your user somehow. In most cases, you should utilize elements that can naturally take focus, such as buttons, anchors, and inputs. Irresponsible usage of tabindex could have a profoundly negative impact on keyboard and screen reader users!

Getting previous state

We want to focus on the element associated with our ref (via the ref attribute) only when our user deletes a task from their list. That's going to require the usePrevious() hook we used earlier on. Add it to the top of your App.jsx file, just below the imports:

function usePrevious(value) {
  const ref = useRef();
  useEffect(() => {
    ref.current = value;
  return ref.current;

Now add the following, above the return statement inside the App() function:

const prevTaskLength = usePrevious(tasks.length);

Here we are invoking usePrevious() to track the previous length of the tasks array.

Note: Since we're now utilizing usePrevious() in two files, it might be more efficient to move the usePrevious() function into its own file, export it from that file, and import it where you need it. Try doing this as an exercise once you've got to the end.

Using useEffect() to control our heading focus

Now that we've stored how many tasks we previously had, we can set up a useEffect() hook to run when our number of tasks changes, which will focus the heading if the number of tasks we have now is less than it previously was — that is, we deleted a task!

Add the following into the body of your App() function, just below your previous additions:

useEffect(() => {
  if (tasks.length < prevTaskLength) {
}, [tasks.length, prevTaskLength]);

We only try to focus on our list heading if we have fewer tasks now than we did before. The dependencies passed into this hook ensure it will only try to re-run when either of those values (the number of current tasks, or the number of previous tasks) changes.

Now, when you use your keyboard to delete a task in your browser, you will see our dashed focus outline appear around the heading above the list.


You've just finished building a React app from the ground up! Congratulations! The skills you've learned here will be a great foundation to build on as you continue working with React.

Most of the time, you can be an effective contributor to a React project even if all you do is think carefully about components and their state and props. Remember to always write the best HTML you can.

useRef() and useEffect() are somewhat advanced features, and you should be proud of yourself for using them! Look out for opportunities to practice them more, because doing so will allow you to create inclusive experiences for users. Remember: our app would have been inaccessible to keyboard users without them!

Note: If you need to check your code against our version, you can find a finished version of the sample React app code in our todo-react repository. For a running live version, see

In the very last article we'll present you with a list of React resources that you can use to go further in your learning.