February 27, 2019

Complex Tables: Issues To Consider

Jen Goulden | Project & Quality Manager
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If you work with customer communications you’ve no doubt come across complex tables. Conveying information through tables is becoming more prevalent, so it’s important to be aware of the issues that document accessibility specialists face when trying to make tabular content both compliant and useable.

To understand the challenges of navigating complex tables it is helpful to consider the assistive technology that enables end users to access a properly tagged PDF file. When a sighted person looks at a table in a conventional print document they can see column and row headers, as well as table data, at the same time. This is also closer to the experience of someone reading a large print or hard copy braille file. However, when screen reader users are navigating a table they are only seeing one cell at a time. Because of this, it is critical that table and row headers are correctly associated to the table data. Let’s say you’re accessing your credit card statement with a screen reader and you’re scrolling through a table that shows your account activity for the month. If your cursor is in a cell in row 37 and it says “$500”, you’ll probably be pretty keen to know whether this refers to a deposit or your balance owing! Associating table headers with table data ensures that the screen reader will say something like “Deposits $500” instead of just reading the dollar amount. This puts the information in context and means that you don’t have to memorize column headers or continually scroll to the top of the table to find out what the $500 is all about.

Tagging simple or uniform tables is pretty straightforward. The challenge comes in when you’re dealing with complex tables that contain merged columns, nested tables, or even paragraphs and lists. An accessibility checker may indicate that such a table is compliant (e.g. there are table and row headers, as well as table data). In reality, though, if there are any issues with the paragraph or list tags the screen reader will not process the information accurately, making it difficult for the end user to understand. This kind of content can often be represented more clearly in a different layout but in Accessible PDF we don’t have that flexibility the way we do with traditional formats such as large print and braille.

Although complex tables can be remediated to comply with accessibility standards and guidelines, they require more complex tagging and testing if they are to be truly useable by your blind and partially sighted customers. If you would like to learn more you can watch the recording of our webinar: How to Design and  Tag A Complex Table.

We will also be exhibiting at CSUN Accessibility Conference at booth #515. Stop by to meet the team and learn more about how to make document accessible.