Today I learned

How to disable UI and control focus with the inert attribute

By Cam McHenry on

SummaryThe inert attribute is a new accessibility primitive that can be used to disable off-screen or non-interactable UI elements and prevent focus from moving to them.

This week, I learned about how to use the inert HTML attribute to disable certain areas of the UI and prevent focus from moving to them. In this particular case, we wanted to prevent focus from moving to an element that was only visible while dragging and dropping an item. This was a visual hint, but we didn't want it to be discovered by screen readers or be interactable in any way.

What the inert attribute does

The inert attribute does the following things:

  • Prevents the element from being interacted with (e.g. clicking, typing, selection, etc.)
  • Prevents the element from receiving focus
  • Prevents the element from being discovered by screen readers (should be effectively removed from the accessibility tree)

Why use inert

Anytime that you want to leave content in the DOM, but render it "untabble" by the user, you can use the inert attribute. This is useful for things like:

  • Rendering an inert modal in the DOM, until opened, then making the page content inert and the modal non-inert. This effectively traps focus to elements in the modal.
  • Disabling a large portion of the UI (e.g., while submitting a form or disabling non-applicable parts of a form)
  • Hiding off-screen content, for example virtualized content that is rendered just-in-time as the user scrolls, or elements rendered just for animation purposes

How to use inert with React

In plain HTML, using the inert attribute is as simple as adding it to an element:

<div inert>
  <p>This content is inert</p>
  <button>This cannot be interacted with</button>
  <p>This content is not inert, and focus will be trapped in this div</p>
  <button>This can be interacted with</button>

However, React doesn't quite yet support the inert attribute as a boolean attribute. This attribute was only recently added to all major browser engines, with Firefox being the latest to add it in April 2023.

Until React supports inert as a boolean attribute (which might be true by the time you are reading this), you can declare it as a string attribute and use truthiness instead. We will use undefined as false and the literal string "inert" as true. This follows the convention for boolean HTML attributes in the HTML standard.

import * as React from "react";

declare module "react" {
  interface HTMLAttributes<T> {
     * Prevents focus from moving to any element inside this DOM element and ignores user events.
    inert?: "inert";

Then, you can use it like a boolean attribute:

const UI = (inert: boolean) => (
  <div inert={inert ? "inert" : undefined}>
    <button>Should be inert</button>