In my work as an accessibility consultant, there are some frequent problems I find on people’s websites. One that’s come up a lot recently is that people are making custom select inputs for their forms. I can tell that people are trying to make them accessible, because they’ve added ARIA attributes or visually-hidden instructions for screen reader users. Sometimes they use a plugin which claims to be accessible. And this is great, I love that folks want to do the right thing! But so far I’ve never come across a custom select input which actually meets all of the WCAG AA criteria.

Often I recommend to people that they use the native HTML select element instead. Yes, they’re super ugly, but as Scott Jehl shows us in his article Styling a Select Like It’s 2019 they are a lot easier to style than they used to be. They come with a lot of accessibility for free – they’re recognised and announced clearly by all screen reader software, they work reliably and predictably with keyboards and touch, and they look good in high contrast themes.

But sometimes, I can’t recommend the select input as a replacement. We want a way for someone to choose an item from a list of options, but it’s more complicated than just that. We want autocomplete options. We want to put images in there, not just text. The optgroup element is ugly, hard to style, and not announced by screen readers. The focus styles are low contrast. I had high hopes for the datalist element, but although it works well with screen readers, it’s no good for people with low vision who zoom or use high contrast themes.

A screenshot of a datalist element: The input area has been zoomed in but the dropdown text is not zoomed in.
Figure 1: a datalist zoomed in by 300%

Select inputs are limited in a lot of ways. They’re frustrating to work with when you have something which looks almost like what you want, but is too restricted to be useful. We know we can do better, so we make our own.

Let’s work out how to do that while keeping all the accessibility features of the original.

Semantic HTML

We’ll start with a solid, semantic HTML base. A select input is essentially a text input which restricts the possible answers, so let’s make a standard input.

Then we need to show everyone who can see that there are options available, so let’s add an image with an arrow, like the native element.

For this input, we’re going to use ARIA attributes to represent the information in the icon, so we’ll give it an empty alt attribute so screen readers don’t announce its filename.

Finally, we want a list of options. An unordered list element is a sensible choice here. It also lets screen reader software understand that these bits of text are related to each other as part of a group.

  • User
  • Author
  • Editor
  • Manager
  • Administrator

You can dynamically add or remove options from this list whenever you need to. And, unlike our element inside a