Accessibility and table layout don't mix

Paul Boag

Here is my controversial point for the day. A point I am not sure if I agree with or not: It is impossible to conform to anything but the most basic level of accessibility if you are using tables to control layout.

As anybody who reads this blog regularly already knows, there are two basic approaches to building a web site:

  1. The traditionally used, table based design approach
  2. The officially approved, web standards methodology

Tables based design

Tables based design uses tables to slice up a design into grids and then reassemble it like a jigsaw. Unfortunately, the vast majority of web designers still use this method to construct web pages even though it is unnecessary and highly inefficient.

Web standards

The web standards approach involves separating content from design. Content is held in your (X)HTML page while the layout and presentation is held in a file called a cascading style sheet (CSS).

Short guide to accessibility

Especially here, in the UK the W3C guidelines on web site accessibility (WAI) are the defining standard in web accessibility. These guidelines are broken into three levels:

  1. Priority One – All sites must conform to this level
  2. Priority Two – All sites should conform to this level
  3. Priority Three – All site can conform to this level

The controversial bit

Checkpoint 3.3, which is a priority two issue states:

Use style sheets to control layout and presentation.

In short, this is saying that you cannot use tables to control layout. This checkpoint may well demonstrate that the W3C does not live in the real world where many web designers only know how to design using tables, but nevertheless there seems to be no getting around what the checkpoint says.

I would be interested in other people’s interpretation of this guideline. Am I missing something here?