Accessible Modals


Modals are elements of a website or application that are appear on top of the main window. They are usually activated by the click of a button or some event. The main window may still visible underneath although you should not be able to interact with it when the modal is open. Modals go by many names, including modal window, dialog, popup and even lightbox. On this page we will use the term modal throughout to describe this pattern.

Before 2023, there was no semantic HTML element that could be used to create a modal. That means developers combined HTML elements to create their own modals. Many different patterns for modals exist out in the wild but unfortunately many are not accessible.

In 2023, the dialog element was added to the HTML specification in an attempt to minimise the need for developers to build their own modals. On this page you will find examples of two accessible modals, one with the dialog element and one without.

How a modal should work

  • Things behind the modal should become inactive when the modal is open.
  • The focus should move to an element within the modal when it opens.
  • The focus should move back to the original activating element when the modal closes.
  • The focus should be trapped within the modal when open - it should not be possible to tab to something outside of the modal when it is open.
  • It should be possible to close the modal by pressing the Escape key.
  • The modal should not be part of the tab order when it is closed.

Using <dialog>

The HTML <dialog> element has full support since Chrome 37, Edge 79, Firefox 98 and Safari 15.4. If you need to support browsers older than this then using a different method is suggested.


The <dialog> element will handle focus if using a keyboard to navigate without the need for additional JavaScript. On opening the modal, focus will be placed on the first interactive item. If no interactive item exists then the focus is placed on the modal itself. All content behind the modal is made inert. Using the Escape key closes the modal. However, clicking on the modal backdrop does not automatically close the modal.

<button id="openDialogBtn">Open dialog</button>
<dialog id="dialog" aria-labelledby="dialog_heading">
  <h2 id="dialog_heading">This is a heading</h2>
  <p>This is some placeholder text within the dialog.</p>
  <button type="button" id="cancelBtn">Cancel</button>


The modal comes with some basic built in styles. The backdrop can be customised using the ::backdrop pseudo-element. Dialog styles can be overwritten by styling the dialog element directly.

dialog::backdrop {
  background: rgb(0 0 0 / 70%);

dialog {
  border: 1px solid #000;
  box-shadow: 0 19px 38px rgb(0 0 0 / 12%), 0 15px 12px rgb(0 0 0 / 22%);


Using the showModal() method will open the dialog element in a modal window (on top of the other content) and apply an implicit state of aria-modal="true". The modal can be closed with the close() method. No extra JavaScript is needed to handle keyboard focus, making background elements inert or closing the modal with the Escape key.

const openDialogBtn = document.getElementById("openDialogBtn");
const dialog = document.getElementById("dialog");
const cancelBtn = document.getElementById("cancelBtn");

openDialogBtn.addEventListener("click", () => dialog.showModal());
cancelBtn.addEventListener("click", () => dialog.close());

Custom Modals

If you need to support browsers older than those listed above, then you may need to build a custom modal component. In this case you will need to add accessible information yourself.


In this case, the div used to create the modal is given a role="dialog" to indicate that this is a modal. It is labelled with aria-labelledby so that it announces the heading when the modal appears. It is also given a tabindex="-1" so that focus can be manually handled with JavaScript.

<div id="wrapper">  
  <button type="button" id="openModal">Open Modal</button>

<div class="modalBackground hidden"></div>
<div role="dialog" id="modal" aria-labelledby="modal_heading" class="hidden" tabindex="-1">
   <h2 id="modal_heading">This is a heading</h2>
   <p>This is some placeholder text within the modal.</p>
   <button type="button" id="cancelBtn">Cancel</button>


For this modal we can use the [role="dialog] attribute to add the styling. All of the positioning needs to be added as none of it is inbuilt, unlike the dialog element.

.hidden {
  display: none;

[role="dialog"] {
  position: absolute;
  padding: 15px;
  border: 1px solid #000;
  background-color: #fff;
  min-width: 300px;
  top: 2rem;
  left: 50vw; 
  transform: translateX(-50%); 
  overflow: hidden;
  box-shadow: 0 19px 38px rgb(0 0 0 / 12%), 0 15px 12px rgb(0 0 0 / 22%);

.modalBackground {
  position: fixed;
  top: 0;
  right: 0;
  bottom: 0;
  left: 0;
  background: rgb(0 0 0 / 70%);


In a custom modal you need to handle focus and inert manually. When the modal is opened, focus moves from the button to something inside the modal. In this case it moves to the modal itself, but it could also move to the heading or the first interactive element. The page content is wrapped in a div with id="wrapper" so can be selected. Once the modal is open the inert attribute is applied to the main content so that focus is trapped within the modal.

When the modal is closed, the inert attribute needs to be removed from the main content. This must happen before you set focus back to the opening button. If not, then the button won't be found. An event listener also needs adding for the Escape key so that it also runs the closeModal function. In this custom component it is also possible to add an event to the modal backdrop to close the modal on click.

const wrapper = document.getElementById("wrapper")
const openModalBtn = document.getElementById("openModal");
const cancelBtn = document.getElementById("cancelBtn");
const modal = document.getElementById("modal");
const modalBackground = document.querySelector(".modalBackground");

const openModal = () => {
  wrapper.setAttribute("inert", "");  

const closeModal = () => {

openModalBtn.addEventListener("click", openModal)
cancelBtn.addEventListener("click", closeModal)
modalBackground.addEventListener("click", closeModal)
window.addEventListener("keyup", (e) => {
  if (e.key === "Escape" && !modal.classList.contains("hidden")) {

WCAG Criteria

Other Resources

Page last updated: 23rd June 2023