Tables Concepts

Data tables are used to organize data in grids. Accessible tables need HTML markup that indicates the difference between header cells and data cells, and indicate the relationship between them.

To make tables accessible, header cells must be marked up with <th>, and data cells with <td>. For more complex tables, explicit associations may be needed using scope, id, and headers attributes.

This tutorial shows you how to apply appropriate structural markup to tables. It includes the following pages:

  • Basic Tables typically have one header row and/or one header column: For simple tables with content that is easy to distinguish, mark up header cells with <th> and data cells with <td> elements.

  • Multi-directional Tables usually have headers for rows and columns: For tables with unclear header directions, define the direction of each header by setting the scope attribute to col or row.

  • Irregular Tables: For tables where header cells span multiple rows or columns, define column and row groups and set the range of the header cells using the colgroup and rowgroup values of the scope attribute.

  • Multi-level Tables have multiple header cells associated per data cell: For tables that are so complex that header cells can’t be associated in a strictly horizontal or vertical way, use id and headers attributes to explicitly associate header and data cells.

  • Caption & Summary: A caption identifies the overall topic of a table and is useful in most situations. A summary provides orientation or navigation hints in complex tables.

Some document formats other than HTML, such as PDF, may provide similar mechanisms to markup table structures. Word processing applications may also provide mechanisms to markup tables. Tables markup is often lost when converting from one format to another, though some programs may provide functionality to assist converting table markup.

Many web authoring tools and content management systems (CMS) provide functions to define header cells during table creation without having to manually edit the code.

Notes: This tutorial provides guidance for creating tables used to display data in a grid. This tutorial does not apply to tables used for layout. As a general rule, tables aren't meant to be used for layout purposes. Instead, best practice is to use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for visual presentation.

Why is this important?

Tables without structural markup to differentiate between header and data cells, and to define the relationship between them, create accessibility barriers. Relying on visual cues alone is not sufficient to create an accessible table. With structural markup, headers and data cells can be programmatically determined by software, which means that:

  • People using screen readers can have the row and column headers read aloud as they navigate through the table. Screen readers speak one cell at a time and reference the associated header cells, so the reader doesn’t lose context.

  • People using alternate ways to access the data, for example by using custom stylesheets to display header cells more prominently, to change text size and colors, and to display the information as lists rather than grids. This can be accomplished by ensuring proper structural coding of tables, so that data can be represented in different ways.

Success Criteria:

  • 1.3.1 Info and Relationships: Information, structure, and relationships conveyed through presentation can be programmatically determined or are available in text. (Level A)