Accessibility, Web

How to Disable Links

How to Disable Links
The topic of disabling links popped up at work again this week. Somehow, a disabled anchor style was added to our typography styles last year when I wasn’t looking.The problem is that there is no real way to disable links. Why would you even want to do it, links and navigation are the basis of the web?At a certain point, it looked like people were not going to accept this fact and I started thinking of how this could be accomplished. Knowing that it would take a lot, I wanted to prove that it was not worth the effort/ code to support such an unconventional interaction, but I feared that by showing that it could be done they would ignore all my warnings and just use my example as proof that it was ok. Instead, I pushed back a little more. I got the sound of crickets as response, so not sure where this is going to land.


A disabled link is not a link, its just text. You need to really need to rethink your design if it calls for disabling a link.Yes, I know Bootstrap has examples of applying the .disabled class to anchor tags, and I hate them for it. At the very least they mention that the class only provides a disabled style, but this is just misleading. You need to do way more than just make a link look disabled.

How to disable a link

If you have decided that you are going to ignore my warning and proceed with disabling a link, then removing the href attribute is the best way I know how.Straight from the official spec:
The href attribute on a and area elements is not required; when those elements do not have href attributes they do not create hyperlinks.
An easier to understand definition from MDN:
This attribute may be omitted (as of HTML5) to create a placeholder link. A placeholder link resembles a traditional hyperlink, but does not lead anywhere.
Here is basic JavaScript code to set and remove the href attribute:Styling this via CSS is also pretty straightforward:That’s all you need to do!

That’s not enough, I want something more complex so that I can look smarter!

If you just absolutely have to over-engineer some extreme solution, here are some things to consider. Hopefully you will take heed and recognize that what I am about to show you is not worth the effort.

CSS Only

First things first, like Bootstrap, we need to style our link so that it looks disabled.First pass at our disabled link class. Setting color to currentColor should reset the font-color back to your normal, non-link text font-color. I am also setting the mouse cursor to not-allowed to display a nice indicator on hover that the normal action is not allowed. Already, we have left out non-mouse users that can’t hover, mainly touch and keyboard, so they won’t get this indication. Next the opacity is cut to half. Disabled elements do not need to meet color contrast guidelines, though this is changing in WCAG 2.1. I think this is very risky, since it’s basically text this point, another reason I hate this. Lastly, the text decoration underline is removed as this is usually the best indicator something is a link. Now this looks like a disabled link!But it’s not really disabled! A user can still click/ tap on this link. I hear you screaming about pointer-events. After all, isn’t that what Bootstrap does?Ok, we are done! Disabled link accomplished! Except, it’s only really disabled for mouse users clicking, and touch users tapping. What about browsers that don’t support pointer-events? According to caniuse this is not supported for Opera Mini and IE<11. IE11 actually doesn't support pointer-events unless display is set to block or inline-block. Also, setting pointer-events to none overwrites our nice not-allowed cursor, so now mouse users will not get that additional visual indication that this link is disabled. This is already starting to fall apart. Now we have to change our markup and CSS…Wrapping the link in a span and adding the isDisabled class gives us half of our disabled visual style. A nice side-affect here is that the disabled class is now generic and can be used on other elements, like buttons and form elements. The actual anchor tag now has the pointer-events and text-decoration set to none. What about keyboard users? Keyboard users will use the ENTER key to activate links. pointer-events are only for pointers, there is no keyboard-events. We also need to prevent activation for older browsers that don’t support pointer-events. Now have to introduce some JavaScript.

Bring in the JavaScript

Ok, now our link looks disabled and does not respond to activation via clicks, taps, and ENTER key. But we are still not done! Screen reader users have no way of knowing that this link is disabled. We need to describe this link as being disabled. The disabled attribute does not work on links, but we can use aria-disabled="true".Ok, now our links look disabled, act disabled, and are described as disabled. Unfortunately, even though the link is described as disabled, some screen readers (JAWS) will still announce this as clickable. It does that for any element that has a click listeners. This is because of developer tendency to make non-interactive elements like div and span as pseudo-interactive elements with a simple listener. Nothing we can do about that here. Everything we have done to remove any indication that this is a link is foiled by the assistive technology we were trying to fool, ironically because we have tried to fool it before.But what if we moved the listener to the body?One last detail. Disabled elements are usually not focusable, and links are naturally focusable. We can fix this by setting tabindex="-1"Are we done? Well,not really. At some point we will need to enable these links so we need to add additional code that will toggle this state/ behavior.That’s it. We now have a disabled link that is visually, functionally, and semantically disabled for all users. It only took 10 lines of CSS, 26 lines of JavaScript (including 1 listener on the body), and 2 HTML elements.Seriously folks, Just DON’T do it!
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