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Building Accessible Tables

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Tim Roberts

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User since: 18 Aug 2002

Articles written: 3

CSS and

XHTML have given tables a pretty rough ride in recent times. Of course,

this is the fault of just about all web developers who have at some point in

their career used them for laying out page elements. This article is not about

using tables for layout. It is about how to use tables to display information

in an accessible manner. Use XHTML

and CSS all you want for layout, but at the

end of the day (if there is one on the internet) so long as there are informational

relationships there will be tables. In fact, to attempt to display any of complex

information relationships without a table is a mistake. If you have information

to display, use tables and use them well.

Table Basics

If I create a plan of what I intended to achieve yesterday and place it in a table, to a sighted

user it can be a great aid:

Today's action plan:

Time Planned Task Preferred Task What I actually did
10 - 12 Catch up on replying to my emails. Have a lie in. Surfed aimlessly.
12-1 Have Lunch. Have Lunch. Had Breakfast.
1-5 Finish that project. Go to video store. Caught up on my emails.

Blind and other severely vision impaired users rely on assistive technologies

to render web content. All text can be fed through a screen reader or refreshable

braille display to be presented to the user. However, despite containing text,

the table above could make a real mess of things without a few extra behind

the scenes accessibility enhancements. To an assistive browser our table could

well look like this:

Time Planned Task Preferred Task What I actually did

10 - 12 Catch up on replying to my emails. Have a lie in. Surfed aimlessly.

12-1 Have Lunch. Have Lunch. Had Breakfast.

1-5 Finish that project. Go to video store. Caught up on my emails.

Ok, we can still kind of make a little sense of it. That is because we can see it. A blind

user can't easily scan back up and check what the third piece of information

relates to. Was it what I actually did, or what I would have preferred to do?

This is why we need to create relationships within the code of our table. Thankfully,

from HTML4.0 a

bucketful of accessibility enhancements were introduced to enable

the conscientious developer to do this.

Before we see how this is done let's go back to first grade. A table is created

with a table element. Everything in the table is contained between <table></table>.

Beneath this we can place rows with the <tr></tr> element. Each

row can have any number of cells using the <td></td>. Rows can alternatively

contain the header element, <th></th>, which we will see are basically

fancy cells with allow us to add turbo-charged accessibility to our table.

Phew, you are still here.

Explaining Our Table

The first thing we should include in any table is a caption and a summary.

The caption will be visible to all users, the summary is a bit of hidden code

for special browsers. The caption comes right under the opening table tag:

<table><caption>Today's action plan: </caption>...

It should provide the user with a succinct and straight to the point description

of the table's content. The caption will be rendered on the screen when your

document is accessed so keep it simple but coherent.

The summary is a place to guide non-visual agents and is an attribute taken

by the opening table tag. Here you can describe the table in a bit more detail

especially with regards to structure:

<table summary ="This table charts my activities for the day

based on three criteria for each of three periods of the day: What I was supposed

to so; what I would have preferred to do and what I actually did. ">...

Our table makes much more sense now to a blind user. Actually, she can probably

figure out what it should look like. Many visually impaired users actually prefer

to be labeled "vision impaired". Just because they can't see, it doesn't

mean they can't visualize! Another point to keep in mind is that the summary

attribute is not rendered on screen, so we can have the time of our life with

it. We just need to make sure that what we write in there is relevant and provides

assistance. Don't write all of the table data in there, just describe the relationship

of data in the table.

Relationship advice.

Now we know what our table is about, we need to show the browser how information

is related. This will help us overcome the problem of of information being rendered

in continuous and seemingly unstructured lines. This is where we go to work

with our table headers. The table above has 4 cells (or columns) per row, so

we will need to add 4 headers to show what these columns represent. The best

place for headers is in our first row, right below the <caption></caption>


Here is what it looks like for the table above:


<th id="h1">Time.</th>

<th id="h2">Planned Task</th>

<th id="h3">Preferred Task.</th>

<th id="h4">What I actually did.</th>


Notice that each <td> tag has taken an attribute called id which has

a unique identifier. I will show you now how we use these unique identifiers

to create relationships for the information in our table, and what the outcome

is. We now need to link all of our columns containing the data to their appropriate

header. Look how easy this is by looking at the first row of data from the table



<td headers="h1">10 - 12</td>

<td headers="h2">Catch up on replying to my emails.</td>

<td headers="h3">Have a lie in.</td>

<td headers="h4">Surfed aimlessly.</td>


What we have done here is created a link between a piece of information and

its header by incorporating a headers attribute into each cell that refers to

the relevant id we created in our <th> id attribute. All we need to do

is make sure we include the same references in every row we create in our table.

So its not even difficult to achieve with dynamic output from a scripted page

such as one produced with asp or

php. But what does all that extra stuff do.

The best way to explain is to show you how a screen reader would deal with that

information. Here is the output for our example row as seen by a screen reader:

Time: 10 -12

Planned task: Catch up on replying to my emails.

Preferred Task: Have a lie in.

What I actually did: Surfed aimlessly.

...and so on for every row of data we have. To a sighted user, it may seem

a drag that every piece of data is proceeded by its header. To a blind or vision

impaired user it can be the only way to keep track of a relationships in a complex

set of data. If your headers are made up of quite long information, this can

be quite a nuisance, but there is also a way to deal with this. Your headers

can also take on an abbr attribute where you type in an abbreviated reference

to your header title. here is an example using our table's headers:


<th id="h1">Time.</th>

<th id="h2" abbr="planned">Planned Task</th>

<th id="h3" abbr="preferred">Preferred Task.</th>

<th id="h4" abbr="actual">What I actually did.</th>


The cool thing about this is that on its first pass, the reader will render

the full header, then for every subsequent row of data it will only read out

the abbreviated value for the header. This gives the user a reference point

without having to listen to the full header at every cell.

Digging Deeper

Before I close up here,I will mention that HTML4.0

also introduced an axis attribute which is still to gain support amongst many

assistive technologies. The axis attribute is to help explain more complex informational

structures and if you want to take a look into it you will see that it is well

outside the scope of this article.On close inspection the axis attribute also

looks suitable for more complex data mining as well as accessibility - once

the technology is in place. For more information about the axis attribute read

the w3

recommendations for tables
. In the meantime I hope you find these simple

techniques for making your tables accessible of use and start implementing them

into your own sites.

Tim Roberts runs a personal site devoted to accessible web design and other day to day issues called WiseGuysOnly.

He is originally from the rainy North of England, but now lives under the Sunshine of Spain's Costa del Sol. In his spare time he works as Senior Developer for Reliant Webs, looks at the stars and watches lots of videos.

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