Transcription: Web Axe Episode 24 (Tab Index - why and why not)

Welcome to WebAxe, practical web accessibility tips.


Dennis: Hello, and welcome to WebAxe episode 24. This is your host, Dennis. Today we are going to talk about the tab index, why or why not? But first, I'd like to take care of some housecleaning. The first thing is, I am actually going on vacation next week. It will be my first quote-unquote real vacation in a while, so that will be nice. But, I won't be posting anything for at least eight or nine days. The second thing is that I received an excellent email, last night, from a gentleman named Ben in Australia. And I was so pleased by the email that I thought I would share it with you:

"Hey WebAxe, I just wanted to say thanks for the great podcast. Back six months ago I was much more into the general web accessibility jibber-jabber podcasts, like boagworld, but these days I listen to your podcast, because I actually get useful stuff out of it. I run my own site and I know that after each podcast I will be able to apply something new, to make it more accessible. I wasn't getting that before, from other podcasts, which is why I am compelled to email you and say, 'good job!'" So, thanks a lot Ben! I guess that pretty much explains what I was shooting for with this podcast -- practical web accessibility tips. So, that's just great.

Anyhow let's move on to the tab index. Now, what is a tab index? That is an attribute that you set inside an HTML tag, usually the input tag. What it does is tell your browser the order of the elements that are selected when you hit the Tab key on your keyboard.

Now, this sounds like a great tool to use, especially for guidelines, such as the WCAG nine-point-four priority three, which says you should create a logical tab order through your links, form controls and objects. Putting this tab index attribute object in all these tags, objects and links will definitely do that.

Now, that's obviously the pro, but there are some cons. I believe there are more cons, that outweigh the pros of setting the tab index, which is why, if you look at any of my sites, I usually don't use it. Now, from what I understand, from WebAIM's website, one con, for those people who use Opera, is that the tab index can interrupt the way the keyboard accessibility works in the Opera browser. For users that have a screen reader, this could just be confusing all in itself, because if the tab orders are different from the actual flow of the content on your page, it is going to be really disorienting for the user.

Now, another con to using the tab index is, in my opinion, it's just redundant and it makes your code just more convoluted and messy. And the reason that I say it is not really needed is that, nowadays, with separating your style from content, using XHTML and CSS in the best way possible, your content should already be in the proper order. And your links should be in the proper order already, and you use CSS to lay that out on the screen. Now if you do that, your tabs should all be in the correct order. Use your skipnav link in the very beginning and things like that, and your site should be fine.

So in my opinion, and I think WebAIM's web site will also agree with me, tab index might not be the best way to go. So, leave some comments, if you agree or disagree, check out the links on the blog,, and I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks again for listening and I'll catch you later.