HTML 5 and the summary attribute

As I wrote in Help screen reader users by giving data tables a summary, the summary attribute on the table element can be used to provide information that helps non-sighted users understand data tables.

The current draft of HTML 5 requires that validators display a warning if they encounter a summary attribute, since it is now an “obsolete but conforming feature”. As I understand it, the reasoning is that there are better ways of providing the same information, making it available to all users. The draft also contains a number of example techniques that may be used to provide additional information about tables.

While I agree that information that is in fact useful to everybody should not just be available to people who use non-visual user agents, I do not think the HTML 5 draft is realistic about it. Forcing people to change the text surrounding tables or asking them to write an explanatory caption text that is redundant for sighted people will often be quite impopular.

When dealing with clients and developers in my dayjob, I have a hard enough time making people use header cells and table captions. I am absolutely convinced that starting to ask people to describe table structure in text that is visible to all users will only work in very rare cases. In most cases it will not be acceptable to have “all that text littering the screen”.

It’s good that HTML 5 gives us more ways of providing table information, but I really think that the summary attribute should be allowed (without validator warnings) for the cases where the only other real-world option will be to not provide any information at all to non-sighted users.

Posted on September 7, 2009 in Accessibility, HTML 5

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