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Tables in documents

Tables should be used for presenting rows and columns of data, not for layout, and column and row headers should be explicitly identified.

For an overview of this issue, see Tables in our IT Accessibility Checklist.

Techniques for Word

Word has limitations when it comes to making tables accessible. For a simple table with one row of column headers and no nested rows or columns, these applications are up to the task. However, more complex tables can only be made accessible within HTML or Adobe PDF (accessible table markup can be added to the PDF using Adobe Acrobat Pro DC).

Often complex tables can be simplified by breaking them into multiple simple tables with a heading above each.

For simple tables, the only step necessary for accessibility is to identify which row contains the column headers. The specific technique for doing this varies depending on which version of Word you’re using. Try either of the following methods:

Method 1

Select the table row that contains the headers (Table > Select > Row), then right-click the row and select “Table Properties.” This brings up the Table Properties dialog. In this dialog, click the Row tab, and check the checkbox that says “Repeat as header row at the top of each page.”  This feature was designed for long tables that span multiple printed pages, but since it results in table header rows being explicitly identified, screen readers have long supported it as an accessibility solution.

Screenshot showing the Tables Properties box, the checkbox for Repeat as header row at the top of each page box should have a checkmark

Method 2

When a table is added to a document in Word, two new tabs will appear in the ribbon, “Table Design” and “Layout.” Selecting the “Table Design” tab (which is sometimes abbreviated as “Design”) will reveal the Table Style Options group where you can define your Header Row.

Screenshot of the Design Tab and checkbox options for Header Row, First Column, Total Row, Last Column, Banded Rows, and Banded Columns

See the following Microsoft support pages for additional information:

Techniques for PDF

To get the best results for an accessible table in PDF, use the application that created the document to add headers then save your document as an accessible PDF. If the source document is not available, or to check and refine the tables in the PDF, use Adobe Acrobat Pro DC.

Using the “Autotag Document” feature for remediation should produce a properly-recognized table. However, further investigation of the table will be necessary to determine if the content has been properly structured.

Use the Table Editor to check and correct table tags, and to determine if column and row headers have been identified accurately. To launch the Table Editor in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC, follow these steps:

  1. From the Accessibility Panel, launch the Reading Order tool
  2. Right click anywhere in the table and select ‘Table Editor’ from the context menu
  3. Right click in each cell and review the Table Cell Properties to ensure tag type, scope, and span are properly assigned

Table Cell Properties dialogue box

NOTE: Modifying PDFs can have unpredictable results. Save often! (Saving multiple versions is recommended.)

Techniques using Google Docs

Google Docs does not currently provide a means of identifying column or row headers in tables.  If you’re authoring a document that includes tables, you should avoid doing so using Google Docs.