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RE: The problem with tables

From: Robert Neff <rcn@fenix2.dol-esa.gov>
Date: Fri, 24 Jul 1998 09:32:08 -0400
Message-ID: <01BDB6E5.EDF0F700.rcn@fenix2.dol-esa.gov>
To: "'w3c-wai-ig@w3.org'" <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
Charles, et. al.

I also find tables to be most misunderstood.  As a developer who has since 
learned to work with lynx 2.8 and pwWebSpeak.  I find they handle tables 
well.  The rules that apply to a screen reader do not apply with these 
products. Next step is to tackle WinVision and JAWS.  I saw WinVision 
demo'd and believe it also handles tables properly (input?)

What is frustrating is that I like tables! But there are so many browsers 
out there and each one handles information in its own way - even with 
graphic browsers such as Microsoft and Netscape.  With these I have learned 
how to design for both, but am still learning on the text and voice 
browsers and screen readers.  Unfortunately I do not have all the tools at 
my disposal.  Unfortunately there is a cost factor.

The example that Charles uses is the example I always here about.  But I 
would like to know what tool or tools are used to produce these results. 
 As a developer, I have learned quite a bit and would like to be more 
informed.  Can you please tell me what tools can produce this result and 
comment on the usage rate or popularity.

Is there a comprehensive list of all browser for ADA?  I know browser watch 
has a significant list, see

Also see http://www.dol.gov/dol/esa/public/programs/dbra/index.html  here I 
used tables for navigation but not like the normal design population.  Also 
see http://www.dol.gov  they use tables for navigation like the rest of the 
design population where the navigation buttons are on the side.  Comments?

I am disparately trying to design for the lowest common denominator, but I 
can only design for what information that I have read!

Appreciate the support and am interested in discussion.

-----Original Message-----
From:	Charles McCathieNevile [SMTP:charlesn@sunrise.srl.rmit.edu.au]
Sent:	Friday, July 24, 1998 2:52 AM
Subject:	The problem with tables

TABLE is probably the most misused element in the HTML spec.

Using tables to provide columns (for examples see Microsoft, W3C, News
services, or most other people who have spent a bit of money on web
design) causes significant problems for screen readers.

(The following is an attempt to demonstrate what happens. To mimic a
screen reader, read as though it were ordinary text, left to right all
the way across the page)

(Start example)
              For Lynx Users there is For users of screen readers the
home page     no real problem, since  problem is that they cannot tell
              it ignores table tags,  where there is a column. Instead
Search this   effectively, but quite  the reader just reads the lines
Website       crudely. Unfortunately  all the way across the screen.
              not all people can use  This makes it so difficult to
Look at me    Lynx, for any number of understand what is being read.
              good reasons.
<end example)

If you read that example all the way across, it sounds like a lot of
nonsense. It is in fact two well formed paragraphs, and some short labels
on the side. Many Screen readers do exactly the same with text in columns.

The amount of effort required to put text in columns (or images with
appropriate ALT text) compared with a simpler more comprehensible layout
does not seem to justify erecting this particular accessibility barrier.
Add this to the fact that it is a blatant violation of the principles
explained in the HTML specification, that form and content ought to be

A proper use of TABLE is to present tabulated data, rather than relying
on PRE to do it. This means that it is possible to linearise the table,
and reformat the data without losing the meta-information provided by the
table structure. (It still causes problems for screen readers, but at
least there is something to say in its favour)

An improper use of tables, but one which, so far as I know has very
limited accessibility problems, would be to format material in such a way
that in each of two columns images were alternated with text. Then only
the ALT text of the image could give rise to a misunderstanding, a
situation which could be handled by an intelligent author.

A really stupid use of tables can be found  on most commercial websites,
where they are used to cram so much information into the visible window
of a graphics browser that the site becomes very difficult to understand
for sighted people who have a high-quality connection and a good monitor.

While CSS is not implemented, using it to control presentation does not
cause major problems. Perhaps when it is implemented, and users have the
ability to over-ride a style sheet provided by an author which does not
suit their particular needs, the problem for screen readers will have
been effectively solved. Otherwise, the whole text in columns debate will
rise again. But there are two ways around it.

The first is to make use of frames. It is perfectly possible to produce a
site which is based on the use of frames, and which is accessible. It's
just that I am unaware of any such site currently in operation. (But then
most websites are inaccessible - it's not peculiar to frames.) It does
take a small amount of extra work, but bad design is generally not harder
than good design, it just requires thinking along different principles.

The second way is to ensure that there is a non-columnar version of
everything in columns, and that it is clear from the start of the
columnar data where to find it. This can take a considerable amount of 

The alternative is to abandon the wholesale misuse of tables. My Doctor
tells me not to smoke or live on a diet of beer, fish and chips and
steak. My mechanic tells me not to drive my car as fast as it goes all
the time. My accountant tells me not to spend all my money on beer, fish
and chips, steak and car repairs.

As experts in their field, I listen to their advice. Otherwise I'd save
myself the money. If a doctor told me beer, tobacco and fat were going to
make me healthy, I would walk away very quickly. Why then, as experts
ourselves, are we so scared to tell people what we know?

Isn't the American government suing tobacco companies for withholding
information? Apart from the fact that our product doesn't kill many
people, what makes us better than those companies?

Ignorance could be used as an excuse, but the reason for fora like this
is to end our ignorance by sharing our knowledge. And to encourage others
to do the same.

(end rant. must be friday afternoon)

Charles McCN
just my 2c worth
Received on Friday, 24 July 1998 09:31:55 UTC

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