Wikipedia:Manual of Style/Accessibility/Data tables tutorial

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This tutorial is a guideline which, as part of Wikipedia's Manual of Style, is intended to assist those creating data tables (or more often lists) in ensuring the content is accessible to all.

Guidelines on this page are ordered primarily by priority, then difficulty. The priority levels are determined by the Accessibility Success Criteria rankings A, AA, and AAA (in descending order of importance as accessibility considerations) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.[WCAG 1] The difficulty indicates if it seems easy or not for Wikipedia users to comply to the guidelines.

Guidelines here essentially follow WCAG 2.0's approach, and some additional reputable sources, like WebAIM, when relevant. A review by an accessibility expert was necessary to ensure WCAG 2.0 was interpreted correctly; this review was made in September 2010.[note 1]

Overview of basics[edit]

  • Priority: high (accessibility level: A)
  • Difficulty: easy (the syntax is fairly simple and editors get used to it; the layout might change users' habits)
{| class="wikitable"
|+ caption text
! scope="col" | column header 1
! scope="col" | column header 2
! scope="col" | column header 3
! scope="row" | row header 1
| data 1 || data 2
! scope="row" | row header 2
| data 3 || data 4

which gives:

caption text
column header 1 column header 2 column header 3
row header 1 data 1 data 2
row header 2 data 3 data 4
Caption ( |+ )
A caption is a table's title, describing its nature.[WCAG 2]
Row and column headers ( ! )
Like the caption, these help present the information in a logical structure to visitors.[WCAG 3] The headers help screen readers render header information about data cells. For example, header information is spoken prior to the cell data, or header information is provided on request.[1]
Scope of headers (scope="col" and scope="row")
This clearly identifies headers as either column headers or row headers respectively.[note 2][WCAG 4]

Layout of table headers[edit]

As can be seen in the example above, row headers are formatted by default as bold, centered and with a darker background. This is the common behavior across the Internet, and the default rendering in most browsers. In some circumstances it might be desirable to apply a style customized for a specific case. The class plainrowheaders will apply left-aligned and normal-weight formatting so that editors do not feel the need to override the header formatting with inline CSS declarations for each cell.[note 3] Used by itself, plainrowheaders will make headers appear similar to unmodified data cells, except for the darker background.

To use plainrowheaders, place it (like wikitable) in the class= attribute at the beginning of the table. The example below shows custom row header style using a larger font instead of boldfacing:

{| class="wikitable plainrowheaders"
! scope="row" style="font-size: larger;" | row header 1

Proper table captions and summaries[edit]

Table markup provides for both captions and summaries, both of great utility for making tables accessible. The caption provides a descriptive heading for the table and the summary provides a "nutshell" of its content. If you like, you can think of them as analogous, respectively, to a journal paper's title and its abstract.


  • Priority: high (accessibility level: A)
  • Difficulty: easy (the syntax is fairly simple and already in use; the layout slightly changes users' habits)

All data tables need a table caption that succinctly describes what the table is about.[WCAG 2] It plays the role of a table heading, and is recommended as a best practice.[2] You would usually need some kind of heading or description introducing a new table anyway, and this is what the caption feature exists for. Table captions are made with |+.[note 4] A caption can be styled with CSS, and may include wikilinks, reference citations, etc. It may be explicitly put to the left like other Wikipedia headings with style="text-align: left;" (a good idea especially on wide tables). Captions are not used for layout tables (these are deprecated on Wikipedia as well as more broadly, but some editors temporarily resort to them until later editors wikicode whatever it was they were trying to achieve.)

A temporary case for not using the |+ caption is in certain situations when using a collapsible table. As of September 2010, the "[hide]" / "[show]" collapse control has to be inside a table header (until the collapsibility script is improved), and it must be large enough to contain it. If the table has no header, or only a very small header, a common solution has been to put the caption text in a table header to which the collapse controller may attach.[clarification needed]

Example of a proper caption from Tobin Bell#Filmography:

Bell's television appearances and roles
Title Year Role Notes
The Equalizer 1988 Episode: "The Day of the Covenant"
Perfect Witness 1989 Dillon TV film
Alien Nation 1990 Brian Knox Episode: "Crossing the Line"

Captions should be concise; if the table needs an extended introduction, provide one in normal article prose, then provide a simpler caption. However, table captions consisting of a single word like "Actor", "Film" or "Television" – as in a previous revision of Tobin Bell's filmography – are inadequate, as they are not descriptive enough.

Avoiding column headers in the middle of the table[edit]

  • Priority: high (accessibility level: A)
  • Difficulty: medium (requires large changes to tables, editors seem reluctant to split tables, needs more testing and feedback)

Do not place column headers in the middle of a table to visually separate the table. Assistive technologies will get confused as they cannot know which previous headers still apply to parts of the table after the first one.[dubious ]

For example, a screen reader reading the cell "Stuttgart, Germany" might associate the cell with the following headers: "Venue, Representing Soviet Union, Representing Belarus". Three headers are read aloud. The first and the third are correct and expected. But "Representing Soviet Union" does not apply to the lower half of the table, and a machine does not understand that. Thus, a machine will not be able to associate header and cells correctly, and will provide misleading information about the table structure to the user.

In most cases, the easier solution is to split the table into several sub-tables with explanatory sub-headings (second example).

Column headers: bad example[edit]

From Vasiliy Kaptyukh and produced by {{AchievementTable}}:

Year Competition Venue Position Notes
Representing  Soviet Union
1985 European Junior Championships Cottbus, East Germany 3rd
1986 World Junior Championships Athens, Greece 3rd
1990 European Championships Split, Yugoslavia 4th 63.72 m
Representing  Belarus
1993 World Championships Stuttgart, Germany 7th 61.64 m
1995 World Championships Gothenburg, Sweden 3rd 65.88 m
IAAF Grand Prix Final Monte Carlo, Monaco 4th

Other similar examples can be found at Yvonne van Gennip, Masters Athletics World Records and Comparison of layout engines (Cascading Style Sheets)#Selectors.

Column headers: good example 1[edit]

The first solution where the table is split in several sub-tables.

Vasiliy Kaptyukh's achievements representing  Soviet Union
Competition Year Venue Position Notes
European Junior Championships 1985 Cottbus, East Germany 3rd
World Junior Championships 1986 Athens, Greece 3rd
European Championships 1990 Split, Yugoslavia 4th 63.72 m
Vasiliy Kaptyukh's achievements representing  Belarus
Competition Year Venue Position Notes
World Championships 1993 Stuttgart, Germany 7th 61.64 m
World Championships 1995 Gothenburg, Sweden 3rd 65.88 m
IAAF Grand Prix Final Monte Carlo, Monaco 4th

Column headers: good example 2[edit]

An alternative which takes a bit more time to implement is to add a column for the representation.

Vasiliy Kaptyukh's achievements
Competition Year Representing Venue Position Notes
European Junior Championships 1985  Soviet Union Cottbus, East Germany 3rd
World Junior Championships 1986  Soviet Union Athens, Greece 3rd
European Championships 1990  Soviet Union Split, Yugoslavia 4th 63.72 m
World Championships 1993  Belarus Stuttgart, Germany 7th 61.64 m
World Championships 1995  Belarus Gothenburg, Sweden 3rd 65.88 m
IAAF Grand Prix Final 1995  Belarus Monte Carlo, Monaco 4th

Complex tables[edit]

In contrast with simple tables, which only have one level of column headers that span one column (! scope="col" | ) and/or one level of row headers that span one row (! scope="row" | ), complex tables have headers that aren't clear and can cause accessibility issues. To avoid these issues, relationships should be clearly defined.

When a column header spans two columns, use ! scope="colgroup" colspan="2" | . When a row header spans two rows, use ! scope="rowgroup" rowspan="2"| .[WCAG 4]

For tables with headers that are more complex, it is recommended to simplify the table or split it up into smaller tables. When this isn't possible, you have to associate each cell to their respective header(s) using the id and headers attributes instead of scope. On the headers, set the id to an unspaced value that is unique on the page. On the cells that are described by headers, set the "headers" to a spaced list of the describing "id" values in an order that a screen reader should read them.[WCAG 5] For example, the following markup has the "Company" header describing the "ABC" company (! id="col1" | Company and | headers="col1" | ABC).

Below is an example of a complex table with headers that aren't visually clear. Look at the source code of this section to see how each cell's id and headers are defined.

a b
w (c) a c w b c w
x (c) a c x b c x
y (d) a d y b d y
z (d) a d z b d z

Images and color[edit]

Note that colors and images with contrast conforming to accessibility requirements will print nicely in grayscale as an induced effect (among other benefits).


  • Priority: high (accessibility level: A)
  • Difficulty: unknown (needs more testing and feedback for a precise rating)

Images inside a table should meet the general requirements in Wikipedia:Alternative text for images. However, small icons are the principal case encountered in a table. They fall into two categories:

  1. icons of symbols ought to have minimal alt text that conveys the same information as the icon (example: if increase indicates an increase it has |alt=increase);
  2. decorative icons (icons carrying no information or associated with a text providing similar information) need to be unlinked and have an empty alt text (|link=|alt=). When they are not able to be unlinked, a minimal alt text will suffice.

Note that images in headers can be particularly annoying for screen reader users if they are badly handled. If the image does not comply with the above criteria, the filename will be part of the header title. The filename will be read aloud in every cell under the header containing the icon. The alt text will also be repeated like the filename, which can also be a nuisance if it is irrelevant to the subject or is too long.


  • Priority: high (accessibility level: A)
  • Difficulty: medium (needs testing and feedback for a precise rating)

Colors inside a table should meet the requirements for color.

  • Color contrast – measured by the free Color Contrast Analyser – needs to be sufficient.
  • A very simple tool that can be helpful for choosing contrasting colours is Color Oracle, a "free color blindness simulator for Windows, Mac and Linux".

But more importantly, information should not be conveyed by color alone. Information should also be available textually. A footnote or a textual sign[note 5] can also be used to show a cell has a particular meaning.

Bad uses of color[edit]

From Fiscal calendar#Chart of Different Fiscal Years:

By Country
Country Purpose J F M A M J J A S O N D J F M A M J J A S O N D

Good uses of color[edit]

Note: This is an example of using color rather than of providing accessible tables. Having the table caption in a table header instead produces a non-accessible table.

Legend: cells marked with "" are included in the fiscal year.

Fiscal years by country
Country Purpose J F M A M J J A S O N D J F M A M J J A S O N D
Fiscal years by country
Country Purpose J F M A M J J A S O N D J F M A M J J A S O N D
Australia 1st of July to 30th of June
Canada 1st of April to 31st of March

From Dwain Chambers (with improved table caption and structure; but the original use of color is good):

Dwain Chambers competition record
Competition Year Venue Position Event
European Championships 1998 Budapest, Hungary 2nd 100 metres
IAAF World Cup Johannesburg, South Africa 3rd 100 metres
Commonwealth Games Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 1st 4×100 metres relay
European Cup 1999 Paris, France 1st 100 metres
IAAF World Championships Seville, Spain 3rd 100 metres
2nd 4×100 metres relay

Avoiding nested data tables[edit]

  • Priority: high (accessibility level: A)
  • Difficulty: unknown (not yet rated)

Nested tables are very confusing for screen reader users, as explained below. Thus, they should be avoided.

Visitors using screen readers and Braille displays can chug through pages one word after another or navigate from one "item" to another, where "items" are defined by HTML markup. The commands to move through the items on a page vary from system to system, but we will model this process as akin to pressing the Tab key.

You can tab to a table and tab within a table. And here is where the problem starts. For simple layout tables not nested within other tables, it is no problem to move from cell to cell. With nested tables, though, a screen-reader user ends up working from within a maze formed by one table inside another.

Where a sighted visitor would appreciate the net appearance of all the nested tables put together, a screen-reader user navigates the underlying structure. As you know from attempting to code nested tables, the structure is damnably difficult to figure out. Now try reverse-engineering that structure via speech output.

In effect, by using nested tables, you conscript blind visitors into debugging the coding of your page by audio alone.

— Joe Clark, Tables and frames,[3]


Additional information can be found at Data tables tutorial/Internal guidelines‎‎. However, this guideline is not meant to be enforced, and only serves as a resource for members of WikiProject Accessibility.

These are examples of tables read aloud by screen readers. They may be useful as concrete examples to show to the community, when the community has difficulty in understanding how an accessible table benefits a screen reader user.


  1. ^ This page was reviewed by fr:User:Lgd, an accessibility expert from the French Wikipedia, in September 2010. Any other review by an expert is welcome, if someone has a concern about a guideline. For example, WebAIM experts can be contacted.
  2. ^ See HTML5 differences from HTML4, 3.6 Absent Attributes: "scope attribute on td" will be deprecated in HTML 5. To prepare for the change we should use solely scope attribute on th.
  3. ^ See the discussions at MediaWiki talk:Common.css some wikitable ideas and bold row headers.
  4. ^ Table captions can also be made with <caption>Caption here</caption>, and summaries with <table summary="Summary text here.">, but wiki syntax should be preferred in articles.
  5. ^ But avoid Unicode characters, per Wikipedia:Manual of Style (accessibility)#Text. See also Graham87's explanation in the context of a featured list candidate.


  1. ^ Table cells: The TH and TD elements, W3C
  2. ^ "Ensure table captions are provided explicitly". Accessibility Management Platform (AMP). San Francisco, California: SSB BART Group. 2015. "Best Practices" section. Retrieved 13 July 2015. GSA Schedule 70. Cites multiple standards besides WCAG, including: JIS X 8341-3: 2004 - Technical Standards Subpart 5; KWCAG; 47 CFR 14. Advanced Communication Services, §14.21 Performance Objectives; HHS HTML 508 Checklist; and US Telecommunications Act Accessibility Guidelines 1193.41–43.
  3. ^ Tables and frames, Note: this source is outdated, but the part concerning nested tables is still valid as of October 2010.

WCAG references[edit]

  1. ^ Web Accessibility Initiative (5 May 1999). Chisholm, Wendy; Slatin, John; White, Jason (eds.). "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0". Cambridge, Massachusetts: World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Retrieved 11 December 2008. Confusingly, the WCAG 2.0's rankings A, AA (or Double-A), and AAA (Triple-A) are used for two different but interrelated concepts, the second of which may be counter-intuitive:
    1. The one used in this Wikipedia guideline – the relative importance of a particular "Success Criterion" at achieving accessibility, in which A is the most essential or impactful, and AAA represents less urgent accessibility allowances a site should make, with AA being of medium urgency. Each criterion is explained at a "How to Meet" link in the section in WCAG 2.0 for each of its accessibility recommendations, and collected at "How to Meet WCAG 2.0: A customizable quick reference"
    2. The compliance level of a website, with "A" representing the minimum level of conformance to the accessibility recommendations, and "AAA" being the most accessible, meeting all Level A, AA, and AAA Success Criteria. Thus, "Level AAA Compliance" means the opposite of "only compliant with Level AAA Success Criteria". Wikipedia naturally strives for Level AAA Compliance, prioritizing on proceeding from A to AA to AAA compliance to meet the most essential accessibility requirements the soonest, where practical.

    The present system replaces the 1999 WCAG 1.0 system of Conformance Levels (also A, AA, and AAA) with a checklist of Priority 1, 2, and 3 recommendations; while those roughly correspond to the current A, AA, and AAA success levels, 2.0 has added many criteria that were not present in 1.0. See "How WCAG 2.0 Differs from WCAG 1.0"

  2. ^ a b "H39: Using caption elements to associate data table captions with data tables", accessibility level: A.
  3. ^ "H51: Using table markup to present tabular information"
  4. ^ a b "H63: Using the scope attribute to associate header cells and data cells in data tables", accessibility level: A
  5. ^ "H43: Using id and headers attributes to associate data cells with header cells in data tables", accessibility level: A