This item is archived. Information presented here may be out of date.

Accessibility empathy for users of spreadsheets

Hannah Thomas

The current spreadsheet situation

The Government Statistical Service (GSS) and Analysis Function (AF) publish a lot of spreadsheets across the ONS website, GOV.UK and various departmental and devolved government websites. I don’t know the exact figure, but I am going to say it is thousands, if not millions (!) in any given year.

At the moment many of these are not accessible. When I edited one of them to make it accessible and had it tested by a screen reader user, his feedback was:

“When using [this] spreadsheet with [screen reader software] JAWS and NVDA I found it to be a pleasant experience. In the past I have found spreadsheets to be extremely confusing, disorientating and stressful. In part this stress came from having to make the document partially accessible for my own needs.”

Understanding spreadsheet accessibility: an exercise to try

To help people empathise with the issues some users face when accessing data tables, I have made a spreadsheet which contains a cover sheet and one worksheet of data which has been blacked-out.

Exercise spreadsheet: Dinosaur spreadsheet (ODS, 21KB).

The idea is the blacked-out worksheet shows you what it is like trying to navigate a data table when you cannot see the layout. This should give you some idea of the issues faced by users with visual impairments.

Can you answer the following questions from the data in the blacked out worksheet?

Hint: you can see what is in each cell by looking in the formula bar – this is similar to what a screen reader would read out.

  1. What percentage of children in Wales owned a dinosaur without a license in 2017?
  2. Can you tell if there is a trend in the percentage of pensioners in London who owned a dinosaur with a license between 1998 and 2021?
  3. When did information that led to revisions become available?
  4. Can you find the link to get back to the cover page when on the blacked-out worksheet?

Answers to the exercise are at the end of this blog post.

Other empathy approaches to try

Often we tend to focus on screen reader users when we talk about accessibility. But accessibility needs are broad. Here are some other empathy approaches you can try.

Go to the blacked out worksheet, turn off the black colour fill and instead:

  • zoom in to around 300% – this will help you understand what it is like for people with visual impairments who use zoom functionality instead of screen reader software
  • use your non-dominant hand to navigate the sheet – this will help you understand what navigation of spreadsheets is like for people who have motor disabilities.
  • only use your keyboard to navigate the sheet – this will help you understand what spreadsheets are like to navigate for keyboard-only users
  • turn on high contrast mode (most computers will have this somewhere in the settings) – this will help you understand what it is like to have a visual condition like cataracts.
  • get some earphones and play this YouTube video while you try and complete the exercise – this will help you understand what it is like to have an auditory condition like Tinnitus.
  • lower your screen’s brightness – this will help you understand what it is like to have a visual condition like glare.

How we can improve accessibility

After editing a spreadsheet to make it more accessible, a screen reader user told me:

“If all spreadsheets were created with as much care and attention to detail, I may not be as reluctant to work with them as I am today.”

To illustrate some of the impacts we can make on spreadsheet accessibility James (a tester at the Digital Accessibility Centre) has made a video of him using his screen reader software to access tables in spreadsheets. In particular, he shows the impact of accessible column headers, which is something you may not have considered before.


  • wrapping text within cells and not allowing text to run too far across a page helps people who use zoom functionality
  • keeping information in cover sheets, content sheets and above tables within one column, helps navigation for people who struggle to use a mouse or who rely on keyboard-only navigation
  • marking up tables so they can be tabbed through in a sensible order also makes things easier to navigate
  • using the ‘automatic’ colour for fonts and not putting on any background fill helps people who have issues with colour contrast or glare by allowing their software to take on colour settings specific to them

Guidance to help you publish more accessible spreadsheets and publications:

Other ways to access help with accessibility in statistics

Join the Basecamp message board for accessibility in statistics.

News article about how to make best use of the Basecamp message board.

Want to know more about accessibility empathy?

To learn more, you can:

Answers to the exercise questions:

  1. 42%
  2. No trend (numbers were generated randomly)
  3. 2019 (there is a note below the table)
  4. If you couldn’t find it, the link is in cell F2


Hannah Thomas
Hannah Thomas
Hannah leads on presentation and dissemination support for the Analysis Function.