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Summary: Place a title or summary of each spreadsheet's content in the A1 (first) cell. Label all columns and rows with unique, descriptive names. Avoid blank cells, rows or columns where possible. Provide descriptive alt text for all charts and graphs.


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The information in this article pertains to both Excel and Google Sheets. Differences between the two are specified where they exist. 

In this article, a “worksheet” or “sheet” refers to an individual sheet (or tab). “Workbook” refers to the entire spreadsheet file, including all the individual sheets. A sheet (tab) can contain multiple data tables.

Write a worksheet summary

A1 is the first cell that will be read by adaptive technologies. Therefore, you should place a worksheet summary in the A1 cell of every sheet in your workbook. The summary should orient the user to the content, providing both a general description and instructions on how to navigate the data effectively. For example: "This worksheet includes two data tables. The first begins at cell A3 and lists travel expenses. The second begins at cell A50 and lists moving expenses."

Each sheet (tab) should have a unique name that describes exactly what information is contained in the sheet. In other words, don’t leave the sheets as their default “Sheet1”, “Sheet2” and so on.

Write clear and meaningful row and column labels

Screen readers read the cells starting from A1 and moving left to right, announcing both the cell number and its contents.

A screen reader would read cell A1 in this screenshot as “City Name A1”.

You should strive to write clear, concise and meaningful labels for each column and row. “City Name” as a column heading is a better choice than “Name” (which is not descriptive) or “Name of City” (which could be more concise). 

For columns that include header rows, define the parameters for datasets (e.g., lowest and highest values, rows/columns that define the limits of the dataset).

Freeze rows or columns to aid usability

Long lists of data are much easier to read if you freeze column or row headings to allow users to keep both the heading and the data visible. Freezing data aids usability by minimizing cognitive load, and it doesn’t interfere with a screen reader’s ability to read the data. 

Use cell styles to indicate heading rows

Visual manual formatting is largely inaccessible to people who use screen readers. For example, if you visually differentiate a header row by changing the font weight or background color of the cells, screen readers won’t be able to see the difference. In Excel, you can use cell styles (similar to paragraph styles in word processing applications) to differentiate the header row. You’ll be prompted to indicate the header row when you transform a range of data (Insert > Table).

It may seem superfluous, but you need to tell Excel that you want to create a table from a selected range of data. This screenshot shows the dialog box you’ll use to tell Excel what cell range contains your data, and the checkbox that lets you indicate the presence of a header row.

However, there is not an equivalent mechanism in Google Sheets. You’ll need to place this information in the descriptive sheet summary.

Write text-based alternatives for charts and graphs

Provide both a title and a text-based alternative for charts and graphs. The descriptive title that is displayed visually should be clear and descriptive, including the date range for the data, if applicable. 

Alternative text should describe the story of the results. Learn more about alternative text for charts and graphs.

Merging cells

Merging cells used to be a no-no but adaptive technology has improved to the point that only older technologies will have trouble with merged cells. Users should keep their technology as current as possible.

Avoid blank cells

Sometimes we want to place blank columns or rows in between to visually indicate different tables located in the same sheet. When you do this, make sure your table summary is descriptive enough to let screen reader users know there is more than one table; a screen reader user might encounter a blank cell and believe it is the end of the data set.

Formulas are A-OK

Screen readers will read the formulas contained in cells. 

Filters are A-OK

Filters allow you to display or hide select pieces of information, which can help you achieve your data display goals. Feel free to use filters to control the display of content, as they do not affect the screen reader user’s ability to read the content of cells.

Pivot tables are A-OK

Pivot tables are accessible to screen readers, and they can assist with your ability to present a cohesive story using data. Go ahead and use them wherever it makes sense for your data and goals.

Notes and comments are A-OK

Both comments and notes are screenreader accessible according to Google documentation. The screen reader will announce the presence of notes and comments as they are encountered, and Excel keyboard shortcuts include one that lets users skip from one note or comment to the next.

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