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Visual layout should be efficient and consistent, without impeding document structure and accessibility



The following guidance builds upon GEL's Grid specification with progressive enhancements to capitalize on recent CSS layout developments.

Necessarily, a grid is composed of individual grid items that together form a set, or group. Sometimes the items should be perceived as related, and in other cases they are only grouped together in order to achieve a visual layout.

A sighted user is typically afforded visual cues that two or more adjacent grid items belong to a set, such as a disparity in style and layout. A blind user instead has to rely on the semantics, or lack thereof, communicated by their screen reader software.

Should grid items represent arbitrary containers, solely used to place items in a grid formation, the <div> element can be used.

Bad example

(Table semantics are inappropriate since the content is not tabular.)

  <tr class="gel-layout">
    <td class="gel-layout__item gel-1/2">One item</td>
    <td class="gel-layout__item gel-1/2">Another unrelated item to the right</td>

Good example

<div class="gel-layout">
  <div class="gel-layout__item gel-1/2">One item</div>
  <div class="gel-layout__item gel-1/2">Another unrelated item to the right</div>

The <div> element is not represented in the browser accessibility tree[1] and therefore presents the user with no undue or unexpected semantic information. Only the contents of the items, where semantic HTML is provided, will be interpreted.

In some cases, the items will have independent semantics to express. In which case, use the appropriate semantic elements for the grid items. In the following example, a tangentially related <main> and <aside> form a wider content column and a narrower sidebar.

bad example

(CSS classes, which do not communicate semantic information to accessibility APIs, are used to differentiate the elements.)

<div class="gel-layout">
  <div class="main gel-layout__item gel-2/3">Content</div>
  <div class="sidebar gel-layout__item gel-1/3">Sidebar</div>

Good example

(The correct landmark elements are employed.)

<div class="gel-layout">
  <main class="gel-layout__item gel-2/3">Content</main>
  <aside class="gel-layout__item gel-1/3">Sidebar</aside>

Grids as lists

If items belong thematically to a set, the standard is to mark them up as a list. Doing so fulfills WCAG2.1 1.3.1 Info and Relationships[2].

Lists are identified by assistive technologies, and their items are enumerated. Many screen readers also provide shortcuts to traverse list items, such as the i key in NVDA.

A grid of scheduled programmes can be considered a thematic set, because each item is of the class "programme".

<ul class="gel-layout">
  <li class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Doctor Who</li>
  <li class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Miranda</li>
  <li class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Holby City</li>
  <li class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Springwatch</li>

Lists that contain children that are not list items are invalid, and liable to cause inconsistent output in browsers. Such parsing issues are considered a failure under WCAG2.1 4.1.1 Parsing[3].

The correct way to incorporate row wrappers into a list is, therefore, to use WAI-ARIA:

<div role="list">
    <div role="presentation" class="gel-layout">
        <div role="listitem" class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Doctor Who</div>
        <div role="listitem" class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Miranda</div>
        <div role="listitem" class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Holby City</div>
        <div role="listitem" class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Springwatch</div>
    <div role="presentation" class="gel-layout">
        <div role="listitem" class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Dragon's Den</div>
        <div role="listitem" class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Blue Peter</div>
        <div role="listitem" class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Daily Politics</div>
        <div role="listitem" class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">Robot Wars</div>

In the example, the grid is defined using role="list". Children are explicitly removed from the accessibility tree using role="presentation", and items are marked with role="listitem". The outcome is that assistive technologies correctly report one list encapsulating eight list items.


Headings, together with lists, create a perceivable structure non-visually, and provide navigational cues[2:1]. A page should make liberal but appropriate use of headings, whether the layout is divided into a grid or exists as a single column of text.

It's quite legitimate to place headings within list items, and beneficial where they represent grid items that contain a lot of structured content. But be aware that a list represents a flat hierarchical structure, so each heading should be of the same level, to reflect this. This level is determined by the level of the heading that introduces the list itself.

<h2>Upcoming programmes</h2>
<ul class="gel-layout">
    <li class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">
        <h3>Doctor Who</h3>
    <li class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">
    <li class="gel-layout__item gel-1/4">
        <h3>Holby City</h3>

The nesting structure for the above example creates the following outline, with "Upcoming programmes" labelling a list of programme subsections.

  • Upcoming programmes
    • Doctor Who
    • Miranda
    • Holby City

For more information, see Headings.


Data tables are read from top to bottom and left to right, with headers along the top and (sometimes) down the left-hand side. It is imperative the visual structure matches the semantic structure in all viewports: table elements must not be allowed to wrap and find themselves falling under different headers.

The GEL grid system is not applicable to data tables, which should be marked up using <table>, <th> (table header) and <td> elements, eliciting the basic, desired layout via user agent styling.

Since wrapping is not permissible, creating a responsive table is a matter of letting the user scroll the table horizontally. To enable this accessibly, you need to:

  1. Wrap the table in an element with overflow-x: auto
  2. Make this element focusable with tabindex="0", so it can be scrolled using the keyboard
  3. Label this focusable element for screen reader users, preferably using a table caption

Inclusive components: Data tables has an example. Note the group role, which elicits the the announcement of the role along with the element's associated label.

<div class="table-container" tabindex="0" role="group" aria-labelledby="caption">  
    <caption id="caption">Grindcore bands</caption>
    <!-- table content -->


Since the GEL grid system uses Flexbox, it is possible to affect the layout order of the grid items using the order property.

.promote {
    order: 1;

<div class="gel-layout">
  <div class="gel-layout__item gel-1/3">First item</div>
  <div class="gel-layout__item gel-1/3" class="promote">Second</div>
  <div class="gel-layout__item gel-1/3">Third</div>

In this example, the class="promote" item is "promoted" from the second position to the first. This creates problems for blind, partially sighted, and keyboard users.

  • Blind users: The markup consumed by the user's screen reader remains in the original order, meaning there is a disparity between their and a sighted user's experience
  • Partially sighted users: If the user is running a screen reader, there is a disparity between the visual order they can partially perceive, and the order that content is announced by the screen reader. This can cause a failure under WCAG2.1 1.3.2 Meaningful Sequence[5].
  • Keyboard users: Any interactive/focusable elements will receive focus in an order that contradicts the order in which they appear. This is a failure according to WCAG2.1 2.4.3 Focus Order[6].

For these reasons, in most cases a different visual order should be achieved by editing the source order — not by employing the order property.

RTL languages

Flexbox intrinsically supports direction by reversing the order of grid items where dir="ltr" is switched to dir="rtl", or the CSS property direction is switched between ltr and rtl.

Since switching to a RTL lang does not automatically change the direction, you will have to explicitly reverse your grid's order in your CSS[7]. In the following example, my-grid switches the direction of its items in a page set to Arabic.

:lang(ar) .my-grid {
    direction: rtl;

Depending on the content of the grid items, and their relationship to one another, it may not be necessary or suitable to switch the direction of the grid, even in a RTL language context.

CSS Grid enhancement

The CSS Grid module[8] is preferable to Flexbox in some circumstances. With CSS Grid it is possible to create a responsive grid of an indeterminate number of items, where each item automatically conforms to the same width, regardless of wrapping behaviour. This behaviour removes the necessity for @media breakpoints, and is particularly useful when arranging sets of Cards or Promos.

In the Cards pattern, progressive enhancement is achieved using @supports:

.gel-cards > * + * {
  list-style: none;
  margin-top: 1rem;

@supports (display: grid) {
  .gel-cards > * + * {
    margin-top: 0;

  .gel-cards {
    display: grid;
    grid-template-columns: repeat(auto-fill, minmax(266px, 1fr));
    grid-gap: 1rem;

Note how the margin set above the @supports block is removed inside the @supports block, since it is superceded by grid-gap. As mandated in GEL's Grid specification, the minimum gap between grid cells is 8px (or 0.5rem).


Some users will magnify[9] their web pages using add-on software, like ZoomText. Others will use 'full-page zoom', as initiated by pressing Cmd (or Ctrl) and +.

Full-page zoom triggers breakpoints in the same way that physically narrowing or widening the viewport does, meaning responsive interfaces support magnification, and the visually impaired. You just need to ensure that content within grid items is responsive too. That means:

  • Avoiding fixed widths, set with width, so that grid content does not overflow
  • Avoiding fixed heights, set with height, that would cause wrapped content to overlap
  • Avoiding white-space: nowrap, which prevents text from wrapping

This topic does not yet have any related research available.

Further reading, elsewhere on the Web

  1. The Accessibility Tree — Google Developers, ↩︎

  2. WCAG2.1 1.3.1 Info & Relationships, ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. WCAG2.1 4.1.1 Parsing, ↩︎

  4. Using the presentation role — MDN, ↩︎

  5. WCAG2.1 1.3.2 Meaningful Sequence, ↩︎

  6. WCAG2.1 2.4.3 Focus Order, ↩︎

  7. :lang() — MDN, ↩︎

  8. CSS Grid Layout Module Level 1 — W3, ↩︎

  9. How to make your site accessible for screen magnifiers — Axess Lab, ↩︎

Copyright © 2019 BBC. This content is published under the Open Government Licence, unless otherwise noted.

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