Tables, data and information: accessibility for developers

  • Author: Access iQ ®
  • Date: 1 Feb 2013
  • Access: Premium

Quick facts

In order to have accessible table data it is important that the table is not too complex, uses elements that help identify and describe the headers and other descriptive content, parses successfully and presents to the person with disabilities a similar way to a person without disabilities.


  • Avoid complex tables
  • Do not use tables for layout
  • Provide captions and summaries for tables
  • Use header and id attributes to describe table content
  • Use tables to lay out forms

Tables are one of the best ways to organise a grid of information, or present information in a way that helps show relationships between data elements over time or between sources.

In the past, HTML tables were used to layout page elements before HTML markup matured to the stage it is now and CSS was not advanced enough to present visual element with the precision designers expected.

There is no longer any need to use tables for page layout and doing so will make accessibility much harder to achieve when tables are used for non-tabular data. In addition, using tables for layout is now inferior to using CSS/HTML as their rigidity cannot compete with the fluid grace, flexibility, adaptability and functionality of CSS.

Screen readers will read content as if there were no HTML at all so it is important to remember several points. Screen readers do not work well with rowspan and colspan attributes and read row by row, from left to right. Thus, the following table will be read by a screen reader as: "one, four, three, two", since it will linearise the text according to the rules of reading a table.

Example 1:

A table with four columns and three rows. The text "one" is in row 1, column 1; the text "two" is in row 3, column 2; the text "three" is in row 2, column 3; and the text "four" is in row 1, column 4.

For these reasons, and more, tables should be reserved for data and tabular information and not for page layout.

In order to have accessible table data it is important that the table is not too complex, uses elements that help identify and describe the headers and other descriptive content, parses successfully and presents to the person with disabilities a similar way to a person without disabilities.

Premium Content

Premium content is available to users that have a current subscription to the content.

This topic is part of our premium content range. To access it, you need a 12-month premium subscription — but let’s put that in perspective. How many hours will you waste if you try to find free information on the internet? And how can you be sure that free info is correct? Or comprehensive? Or specific to your role?

With a premium subscription, you get virtually everything you need, all in one place. All you need to do is follow the information provided, and you’ll know you’re covered.

Each subscription includes:

  • A year of content updates — Premium content is updated regularly, and you get all of those updates for free.
  • Professional support — Ask questions or request further information from an Access iQ™ specialist.
  • Access to Q&A — See the questions and answers submitted by other premium subscribers, so you remain up-to-date on the accessibility challenges faced by others in the industry.

Unlock this content: