From an accessibility perspective, there is some question about whether to use or to avoid tables. As a general rule, tables are more useful to screen reader users with more skills who know how to use the screen reader tools that assist in navigating a table. Even more important though, is a web developer using tables appropriately and designing them correctly.
Tables display pieces of information that have some sort of relationship. For example, the dates on a calendar are organized vertically by day of the week and horizontally by week of the month. A list of books can be organized vertically by information such as the title, author (s), editor, publication year, or ISBN and horizontally by the book. Some data often times fits best into a table, rather than a paragraph. For example, month and year vertically along the top and climate information such as highest/lowest temperature, precipitation, and humidity horizontally along the left. Writing all of this information out in a single line of text would make it much more challenging to access, understand, and recognize patterns and relationships.
Tables are just as valuable to someone who is blind as to someone who is sighted. They provide information about relationships, simply explaining how one piece of information relates to another, and how sets of information relate to one another. Tables also make it easier to sort through a lot of information more quickly. Users can sort horizontally and vertically to find what they want without having to go through every piece of information. Frequently when a developer eliminates tables for “accessibility,” they simply put all the information into linear form, making it tedious to navigate.
The biggest problem is when a developer uses a table in order to format a page. The table provides extra information to a screen reader user and impacts the order in which they navigate through the content. When a screen reader user enters a table, the screen reader will say something along the lines of “Table with 54 rows and 4 columns.” Then, as the user navigates through the table, the screen reader will provide information about their location in the table such as “Row 2 check box unchecked.” If the table is meaningless, the information about location in the table winds up being burdensome and distracting. Here is a link to a video of a screen reader user navigating an email that uses tables for layout. For a screen reader user, it’s equivalent to having talk radio playing the background during a meeting - not impossible to work with, but it makes it difficult to concentrate. In addition, the use of a table suggests there is some sort of meaningful relationship about how the contents are organized. A screen reader user might spend time trying to find this relationship, and in the end waste time if there is no such use.
Here is a link to a screen reader user navigating an accessible and inaccessible table.
Tables are a useful way to present the types of information that belong in a table. When they are used appropriately, they do make content more accessible.