Should accessible PDF documents be a part of a company’s web accessibility strategy? That’s the question that was posted recently in a LinkedIn web accessibility forum.
The question inspired a lengthy and exciting discussion among accessibility experts from a variety of sectors and roles. What resulted was an informative and multi-faceted conversation that brought up several questions, comments and solutions related to accessible PDFs.
To read the entire LinkedIn exchange, copy and paste this link into your browser:
For those who just want the quick highlights, I have consolidated a few of the more popular thread themes, questions and ideas that emerged.
PDF Document Accessibility
There was almost full consensus from accessibility experts on the fact that all online PDF documents should be made accessible. Within the LinkedIn discussion, a web accessibility consultant commented that since they’re likely available on a company’s public facing website or customer facing portals, PDFs should be part of a company’s overall web accessibility strategy. “It’s particularly important if that information isn’t available in another format that’s accessible,” a Section 508 accessibility and remediation specialist added. Others pointed out that some companies have gotten around creating accessible PDFs by making the same information available in an accessible HTML format instead.
Keep in mind that whatever the format, when approaching accessibility for what I call the ad-hoc or one-to-many type documents like marketing collateral, publications, informational documents, reports, etc., the approach typically is a manual one whether repairing, touching up or creating accessible PDFs. The key here is to author with accessibility in mind.
What about Archived PDFs?
I also saw a strand of comments regarding whether or not archived PDFs should be available in an accessible format. While many of the contributors in the discussion suggested that ideally they’d like to see historic PDFs made accessible, most saw the process of converting them as too time consuming and cost prohibitive, and in my opinion this is likely, because the traditional approach to making these documents accessible is a manual tagging and repair process that simply couldn’t be applied to such a large volume of archived PDFs.
One researcher in usability and accessibility pointed out that no one would ever look at those documents anyway, while a Section 508 accessibility and remediation specialist stated that converting them would depend on budget, timeliness and importance – otherwise, accessible archived documents could be made available upon request. My opinion here is multi-fold; firstly, whether or not someone would or could look at an archived document shouldn’t be the basis for the decision as to whether it is accessible or not. If the document is made available, it should be made available to everyone, including those with visual disabilities. Traditionally, there hasn’t been a solution that is timely or cost effective that would allow these archived documents to be addressed post-composition, but there is an automated solution on the market now that does just that and produces WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliant PDFs.
“Many companies are mandated – either by internal by-laws or external regulations – to store those historical PDF documents,” wrote my colleague from Actuate. For other companies, allowing customers to access historical documents (including statements or past invoices) may be a value-added service. “Whatever the reason for storing might be, if any time in the future that content needs to be accessed then it goes without saying that it should be accessible,” he added. “That doesn’t mean that organizations have to store the content in an accessible format for the lifespan of the document, but rather can employ a solution to automatically convert documents on-the-fly/on-demand.” This is very exciting since the solution mentioned here is a patented and fully deployed solution performing this very process for very large financial institutions today. It can and is being done!
What about PDF/A format for archived documents?
Many PDFs kept for historical purposes are stored in this format, a Section 508 assistant coordinator pointed out. PDF/A formats have a stricter structure that allows them to remain backward and forward compatible, he added. Could PDF/A formatting get in the way when it comes to accessibility? My colleague responds, “No, it didn’t “negate or hinder … capabilities to provide that content in an accessible format (meaning this format too would work for a solution that applies accessibility tagging or PDF remediation on demand) when the content is requested.” There are exceptions, of course – not every document can be made accessible post production, depending on how it’s been authored or formatted – but a large number can be, without the need to re-author them.
Accessible HTML Instead of PDFs?
A marketing communications consultant pointed out that HTML isn’t always appropriate. For example, it is not appropriate in the case of very long documents or for those that will be distributed mainly through print. A Section 508 assistant coordinator added that if it’s the PDF that’s going to be widely distributed, it should still be available in an accessible format.
I hear this HTML question posed to me frequently, and agree that in many cases HTML or XML is the best format when the content (code) is designed accessibly. HTML and XML typically pose less accessibility issues for assistive technologies like screen readers, particularly for web content. But what about the case of high-volume, electronically-delivered, customer communication documents, like bank statements, telco bills, medical notices, etc.? That is the question I pose and it is a leap for many to consider.
This content is usually presented as PDF and can quickly add up to millions of pages or even hundreds of millions of pages per month, per organization and is therefore in a different category of challenges, mostly due to sheer volume. The typical approach to making PDFs accessible is to design with accessibility in mind, convert to PDF, then check and touch up the PDF– which is the repair or remediation process – and it simply doesn’t fit or scale for statement type PDF documents. They’re also typically not available in HTML or XML, since PDFs are usually the format of choice and are often required for archival and regulatory compliance purposes.
Additionally, large organizations producing these types of communications have often invested heavily in their technology infrastructure with sophisticated software that transforms the data – like names, account numbers, marketing ads, etc. – into print files that get turned into paper communications and also into PDFs for online presentment. So providing accessible HTML/XML in this case may not be a solution. There is now a technology solution that works within the IT enterprises and allows for every PDF to be created completely accessible automatically (to WCAG 2.0 Level AA conformance), so now these companies can include all their e-delivered PDF communications as part of their overall web accessibility strategy.
That’s just a small sample of some of the discussions exchanged on LinkedIn around PDF accessibility as part of an oveall web accessibility strategy – along with a few of my opinions on the topics posed. Thank you to all who provided great insight into the accessibility issues with PDF. I hope we can continue to have more of these types of conversations on social media with lots of industry experts sharing their insights! Please connect with me on LinkedIn or via Twitter.
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