Excel worksheet showing

Excel Accessibility: Screenreader speaking of Row and Column Headers in Excel

A solution to the problem of Excel spreadsheets not reading column and row headings for particular cells for the visually impaired

Excel Accessibility: Screenreader speaking of Row and Column Headers in Excel

Since I was assigned to teach a class this spring semester that is graphics intensive using tables, charts, and graphs, it was fortuitous that Ed Summers (Activity: Create and share a simple bar chart)and Diane Brauner (Digital Transitions #4: Bar Charts (Fall Leaf Activity) posted information and how-to’s on charts. I am in touch with the textbook publisher of the curriculum I have been assigned in order to create accessible content, hopefully that will bear fruition soon, any suggestions and comments will be greatly appreciated.

Meanwhile, I am also completing the last part of a segment in a course where students learn about basic spreadsheet usage (MS Excel) that also involves charts and obviously tables. For VI students, navigation is accomplished very well through spreadsheets because the information is so compartmentalized and easy to locate via cells’ column and row identifiers. However, teaching Excel did present an issue in that column and row headings were being read by a screen reader using default names for cell location(A1, B2, etc.). This made using a spreadsheet cumbersome, particularly for large amounts of data as the VI students would have to navigate to the headings from a particular cell to ascertain what the heading was, i.e. “Sales” and it is very easy to get lost in the unnamed regions of the Excel ether.

There is, however, a relatively simple solution to this dilemma so that the screen reader reads the actual column and row heading along with the cell location, i.e. “Sales, popcorn, C3” etc.:

Directions are slightly different for various versions of Excel but will roughly correspond to the directions enumerated here (locations of the functions may be listed in different menu tabs, etc. but the names are pretty much the same). In Excel 2010 go to the Formulas menu heading (keyboard shortcuts ALT+M), Formulas tab of the ribbon, followed by “Define Name” (M again), and then ENTER on Define Name. Type in the word Title (capital T) and press ENTER to close the dialog box. Focus returns to the worksheet again. Now, as a JAWS user navigates left, right, up, or down, JAWS automatically speaks the row and column headers for each cell.

The JAWS manual states that the “Define Name” function can be defined to include only speaking Rows or Columns with the “RowTitle” and “ColumnTitle” but we have had little success with this working properly.  

Excel will also allow for having column and row headers read in different regions of a spreadsheet with “Define Name” by naming a Region with TitleRegion1.A1.F4.1, where A1.F4 describes the range of cells. One can name as many regions as one wishes by using TitleRegion2, 3, etc. followed by the range of cells.

A few housekeeping rules: name titles are defined by mixed case (RegionTitle, etc. ) and no spaces are allowed between words and region definitions in the name.

An LSU professor had contacted me about a student she had that was visually impaired who was experiencing the very problems of navigating a spreadsheet described above and a successful resolution was accomplished using the “Define Names” function.

Happy Holidays,

George S. Thompson


By George Thompson

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