Freedom Scientific’s Annual Accessibility Showcase: Highlights from the One-Day Event

Computer monitor imageScreen reader technology has become a mainstay for the blind community, allowing individuals with visual impairments to read and access digital information in a way they never could before. And since Actuate’s own automated Document Accessibility technology provides a means for high volumes of documents to be made completely compatible with screen readers, we like to stay up to date on all the latest innovations JAWS has to offer..

I was asked by Freedom to participate in their Annual Accessibility Showcase, held on October 23rd in Washington, DC. Freedom Scientific is the company behind JAWS screen reader technology, and one of the leading innovators in the field.

The Accessibility Showcase covered document accessibility in Word and PDF, and looked at training solutions for employees with disabilities, and outlined some of the exciting new offerings in Freedom Scientific’s newest release, JAWS 16.

JAWS 16

The turnout was great and the people who attended were the who’s who of accessibility, including experts from the federal government, Section 508 officials and coordinators, usability and compliance testers, business unit managers, document creators, and government contractors. Many of them are visually impaired themselves. And they all came because JAWS is one of the most popular screen reader technologies available, and is largely the standard for people who test applications, websites and documents for accessibility.

And now, the new release of JAWS 16 will add even more functionality. Some of the highlights Freedom Scientific announced include:

  • JAWS Command Search, a built-in search engine for keystrokes. This new feature lets users enter a full or partial description of a command and find out the associated keystrokes involved.
  • Enhanced Convenient Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for PDF Documents, which better allows JAWS technology to read image PDF documents.
  • The JAWS Standard License will now be the JAWS Home Edition. It works with either the Home or Professional versions of Windows and is intended for non-commercial use, on a personal laptop or desktop computer.
  • Support for MathML, with descriptions of math equations and formulas in the same style used by teachers in a classroom.

These features will only make JAWS easier to use. But while the JAWS 16 presentation was one of the highlights of Freedom Scientific’s event, it wasn’t the only one.

Accessible Solutions

One of the presentations later in the day by Terri Youngblood from Accessible Systems was also well received. It was entitled “How to Create an Accessible Word Document,” and walked the audience through creating an accessible Word document using Word’s built in functionality – which is critically important for document authors to understand. This is the needed approach for documents created as lower volume, one-offs. Her presentation was actually scheduled just before my own and served as a perfect segway, since my segment focused on the solutions for high-volume PDFs.

My session was called “Enterprise Generated PDF Accessibility and Usability,” and focused on PDF tagging and strategies and solutions for addressing accessibility for high-volume PDFs generated at the enterprise level. Examples of these are some of the most widely distributed and critically important documents such as personalized tax, health and benefits statements and notices.

I did get some great feedback from my presentation, especially from federal government representatives – many of whom don’t know an automated solution exists that can automatically remediate high-volume PDFs into Section 508 (and WCAG 2.0 Level AA) conformant accessible PDFs. . With that in mind, I’ll go into more detail on accessible PDFs for government in my next blog post.

I was really delighted to be a part of this event. Actuate has a great relationship with Freedom Scientific and is looking forward to continuing that relationship. In fact, Matt Ater, the company’s Vice President of Services, also spoke at Actuate’s federal government accessibility event, Automation and the Changing Landscape of Section 508 on December 4, 2014.

For more information on my presentation at Freedom Scientific’s Annual Accessibility Showcase, contact me on LinkedIn or at skelly@actuate.com.

Accessibility and Government-Produced PDFs

First published on G3ict.org

Government agencies are huge creators of high-volume personal communications. Tax documents, benefits and health statements, and other critical information is distributed everyday – and the U.S. federal government aims to deliver more and more of these digitally, cutting costs and making them easier for citizens to obtain. Yet, to reach all citizens, they need to ensure these digital documents are accessible to everyone – including the visually impaired.

Through the accessibility conferences and events I’ve attended – including Freedom Scientific’s recent Annual Accessibility Showcase – I’ve had a chance to speak to many government audiences. They’re wrestling with how to best create equal access in the digital documents they distribute – as well as meet compliance with their own Section 508 accessibility standards – which is why I wanted to address the issue here. Government accessibility, after all, is about to become even more important, as the U.S. federal government initiates its ICT Refresh – an update of the Section 508 Standards and Guidelines, issued under the amended Rehabilitation Act.

What will the changes to Section 508 cover?
Section 508 standards mandate federal government agencies on how they procure, use, develop or maintain information and electronic technology – and aims to make this information accessible to people with disabilities. The update is expected to tighten accessibility regulations further, bringing them up to standards outlined in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. It’s also expected to include a full scope of communications not currently specified including:

  • Public-facing content
  • Content that is broadly disseminated within the agency
  • Letters adjudicating any cause within the jurisdiction of the agency
  • Internal and external program and policy announcements
  • Notices of benefits, forms, questionnaires and surveys
  • Emergency notifications
  • Formal acknowledgements
  • Educational and training materials

What is expected to be exempt from covered content would include:

  • Archival copies stored or retained solely for archival purposes to preserve an exact image of a hard copy
  • Draft versions of documents

Although Section 508 is a mandate for federal government, it has had a trickle-down effect into the private sector as well. That is solely due to the procurement regulations. With federal government constituting the largest consumer of electronic and information technology, those supplying that technology must make their products, including their documents and documentation, meet Section 508 standards in order to sell it to government. So, the new refresh will apply equally to government agencies, and to companies in all industries and of all sizes that supply to them.

How can government meet these needs?
In my opinion, meeting the need for accessible digital content means two things: creating the right types of documents, and finding the most cost-saving and least invasive way to build accessibility in. With that in mind, consider two things:

1. Many of these government communication documents – from tax notices to health and benefits statements – need to be offered in a digital format that’s accessible as well as portable and secure, in order to be archived for official purposes. While HTML has become a popular way of providing many types of documentation, and has its uses in government as well, it doesn’t meet these criteria. PDFs do.

2. High-volume, personalized communications such as the ones government agencies produce aren’t created by individuals. They’re created by applications that can handle those large volumes. Individually building in accessibility manually after the fact can be expensive and time-consuming – often with extended delivery times versus the instant access through secure web portals afforded to those who don’t require an accessible digital format.

The right technology, though, can help get around these challenges. And it’s why Actuate introduced Cloud508 for federal government.

Cloud508
To meet the needs of government, Actuate recently announced Cloud508 – a collaborative partnership between Actuate, Braille Works and Venatôre – which was specifically designed to meet the stringent security requirements of federal government. Cloud508 automates the generation and remediation of accessible PDF documents on demand and meets Section 508 requirements and WCAG 2.0 standards for accessibility. What’s more, Cloud508, powered with Actuate technology, allows for the automation of traditional formats like Braille, large print and audio, all while reducing costs and significantly speeding up delivery time. Highlights include:

  • Automates generation/remediation of accessible PDF documents
  • Cloud-based service
  • First and only on the market, patented technology
  • Secure – meets federal government’s stringent security requirements
  • Real time conversion service
  • Designed for high volume personalized communications such as tax, health, and benefits notices
  • Section 508, WCAG 2.0 Level AA, PDF/UA compliant formats
  • Automates and streamlines production of Braille, large print and audio formats

I think it’s the answer a lot of government agencies are looking for as they search for ways to save time, resources, money, and comply with Section 508, all while providing a comparable experience to the blind and visually impaired.

For more information on Cloud508, visit www.cloud508.com.

Automation and the Changing Landscape of Section 508 – Part 2 [Free Event for the Government]

Capitol building and a symbol of accessible PDFThe Main Event – Part 2

A Sneak Peek at the Automation and the Changing Landscape of Section 508: Government Digital Accessibility Training.

In my last blog post, I gave readers our first sneak peek at the Automation and the Changing Landscape of Section 508: Government Digital Accessibility Training Event, an upcoming one-day invitation-only, free event, taking place on December 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. The theme of the event is “How Automation is Changing the Landscape of Digital Accessibility” and it will focus specifically on federal government accessibility and Section 508 compliance.

In my previous post dedicated to this event, though, I focused exclusively on the event’s morning sessions, focused on offering details on the panel we have planned, which will feature experts in the field of digital accessibility, especially as it relates to the U.S. federal government. Today, I’ll focus on the afternoon, when we’ll offer a series of breakout sessions focused on technology and automation and how both are changing the ways accessible content, especially documents, are being presented accessibly..

What to Expect

Since the theme of the event is digital accessibility’s changing landscape, Actuate wanted to offer a snapshot of not only how that landscape is changing thanks to automation, but also explore how different technologies are involved in that automation and transformation. With that in mind, speakers from a host of companies that specializing in this niche sector will present, diving deep into how technologies work together to meet the needs of the public sector looking to create, remediate and present accessible digital content today.

What companies will present? While I won’t name any names today, I’ll give you a few hints. For example, a speaker from a specific government cloud provider will come to discuss how accessible PDFs can be automatically, dynamically remediated in the cloud, to help support the U.S. government’s Cloud First initiative. A representative will also be there from a company that automates the development and maintenance of accessible websites – they’ll discuss how automation is changing how government can create and maintain accessible websites, eliminating the need for large on-staff web accessibility experts. A unique Braille organization that provides traditional documents like Braille, Large Print and Audio will present on how technology enabled a ground-breaking automation of these previously labor intensive formats. There will also be discussions on proper tagging for PDFs, including ad-hoc documents created on desktops and those high-volume documents created by enterprise IT applications. There will even be a government contractor specializing in Section 508 compliance testing for PDF documents, who will do a live screen-reader demonstration on the usability of properly tagged PDFs.

It promises to be an informative afternoon for anyone interested in how technology can help them better stay accessible. And of course – because we want our guests to get as much out of the day as possible – all of the 20-minute sessions will be followed by Q&A periods that will allow the audience to follow up with any questions of their own.

Finally, for anyone who’s interested, we’ll finish the afternoon with a demo of Actuate’s own Document Accessibility Appliance. That will be followed by a networking event that will allow delegates the opportunity to mingle with presenters and expert panelists, asking any remaining questions they might have. Our goal, after all, is that our guests will leave feeling they know more about accessible digital content and the issues around it than they did coming in – and that they’ll have all of their questions answered along the way.

If you’re interested in finding out more on Automation and the Changing Landscape of Section 508: Government Digital Accessibility Training, or receiving an invitation, please contact me via LinkedIn or email to skelly@actuate.com.

Cloud508: A Cloud Solution for Federal Government that Automates Document Accessibility

Capitol building with clouds above it in the sky and symbols of digital accessibilityA unique collaboration designed to build accessibility into the U.S. federal government’s most important and most distributed documents, Cloud508 is Actuate Corporation’s newest endeavor. A joint project with partners Braille Works and Venatôre, the cloud-based service works with documents such as tax, health, and benefits notices, statements and other personalized communications, automatically converting them on demand into accessible, Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliant PDF format.

Cloud508 is not only unique, but is the first of its kind on the market. It is no secret that federal government produces and distributes enormous amounts of personalized notices to tax payers and beneficiaries, creating a significant challenge in meeting mandated Section 508 compliance allowing the documents to be accessible and usable by the blind and visually impaired recipients agencies serve.

This service has been designed to eliminate the costly and laborious manual remediation efforts typically required to produce compliant accessible electronic documents. Until now, to make a PDF document accessible, human operators would use special software and manually remediate each and every page of a personalized notice. Not only is it costly and labor intensive, but with the sheer volume of documents it also slows the delivery time to the recipient. Now with Cloud508, each personalized document can be automatically remediated, on-demand, on the fly, nearly instantly! When these documents are electronically delivered via the web, blind and visually impaired recipients can receive their notices and statements at the same time as sighted recipients. The documents generated by this automation service are output as PDF/UA format meeting WCAG 2.0 Level AA and Section 508 accessibility standards.

The Cloud508 Collaboration Partners

To create this cloud-based accessibility solution, Actuate collaborated with two commercial and federal government experienced partners:

  • Braille Works International is a Section 508 and accessibility expert and leading provider of reading materials for the visually impaired serving the federal government.
  • Venatôre provides data center and cloud engineering services delivering mission critical solutions to federal government customers.

Each has entered the partnership with their own area of expertise; Braille Works providing its subject-matter experience to ensure the documents meet accessibility and usability standards, and Venatôre bringing its secure cloud infrastructure required by government agencies. Actuate is contributing its patented document remediation software, designed to convert high volumes of personalized statements, notices and other communication documents into accessible PDFs.

We are excited to bring this unique service to market, and Hunter Trice, President/ CEO of Venatôre, expressed it perfectly:

“What excites us about this service is that it takes an innovative approach to addressing federally mandated accessibility requirements. The Cloud508 offering changes the rules by taking the industry from a mostly manual, time intensive remediation process to a largely automated, workflow-driven SaaS model. Cloud technology is enabling innovation in customer segments that have been traditionally underserved. Specifically, Actuate’s Cloud508 service makes it much easier for government agencies to deliver the same level of service, utility and convenience to the visually impaired.  It makes providing accessible content a part of the standard operating procedure instead of something delivered as an exception or accommodation.”

The Details

Cloud508 is highly scalable and reliable, with accessible output that has been tested and approved by The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). Not only that, but its cloud infrastructure supports the U.S. federal government’s Cloud First Policy and its built-in security and encryption features meet strict government regulations. It delivers benefits to both the government agencies it services and the visually impaired individuals it is designed to help, including:

  • Software-based automation for document remediation
  • Secure and efficient delivery in the cloud
  • Compliance support with U.S. accessibility legislation, including Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act
  • WCAG 2.0 – Level AA and PDF/UA compliance for documents
  • Equal access to government services for those with visual, cognitive, and print disabilities

Along the collaborative partnership path an unexpected outcome was realized, and born from that was yet another unique and compelling advantage of Cloud508 – the automation of traditional print formats. With some clever programming and utilization of the rich accessible output, a streamlined and more efficient process for creating braille, large print, and audio formats was developed! This brings lower costs, and for those preferring these more traditional formats, an expedited delivery time – even with higher volumes.

Lou Fioritto, Founder of Braille Works International, said:

“The concept of an automated process for the creation of accessible documents was largely dismissed due to the complexity of the process.  Cloud508 is a game-changer.  It not only automates the creation of 508 compliant PDF documents, but in the process allows for the automation of a portion of the work to create traditional formats such as braille, large print and audio.  With Cloud508, a Federal Agency can reduce the cost and time needed to deliver compliant documents to their visually impaired constituents.”

A true wealth of knowledge, experience, services, and unique patented product have been combined to create Cloud508 as a full-service, flexible solution with unmatched accuracy in its performance, speed, and accessible output. Together this is a powerful combination!

Download the Solution Overview to learn more about Cloud508.

Contact me at skelly@actuate.com to learn more about an educational, invitation-only, private training seminar for government agencies organized by Actuate and leading accessibility industry experts on December 4th, 2014, in Washington D.C. Metro Area.

 

Automation and the Changing Landscape of Section 508 – Part 1 [Government Training Event]

Capitol building and a symbol of accessible PDFThe Main Event – Part 1

A Sneak Peek at the Automation and the Changing Landscape of Section 508: Government Digital Accessibility Training.

Imagine some of the leading accessibility experts from private industry and federal government gathering alongside individuals from the community it’s designed to reach. Imagine hot-topic conversations on issues related to PDF documents, HTML, web, mobile content and the future of these formats for accessibility.  Imagine hearing these experts discuss what’s in store for federal agencies as legislation evolves and the impact technology brings. Imagine hearing from the blind and visually impaired community about the effect technology has on them and how their needs are shaping both the legislation and emerging technology.  And, imagine exploring how the cloud and automation is changing the landscape of meeting Section 508 compliance, particularly for documents.

Sound interesting? Well, we think so too.

Which is why, on December 4, 2014, Actuate is hosting Automation and the Changing Landscape of Section 508: Government Digital Accessibility Training Event in Washington, DC – a one-day invitation-only, free event focused on digital accessibility for federal government. The theme of the event is “How Automation is Changing the Landscape of Digital Accessibility for Federal Government,” and over the course of two blog posts I’m going to give you a sneak peek of exactly what we’re going to offer.

Today, I’ll focus on the day’s morning sessions.

The Event

The morning sessions will involve some of the top names in digital accessibility, discussing some of today’s hottest issues. After my own keynote speech to start the day, there will be a special surprise presentation to kick things off. I can’t offer too many details on that now, but the surprise offers a reminder of the challenges blind and visually impaired users face today. You’re going to have to come to the event to see what it’s all about, though.

A panel discussion will round out the morning, featuring a line-up of leading experts discussing some of the most important topics in accessible digital content today.

The Panel

So who’ll be participating in the panel? Only some of digital accessibility’s most prominent advocates, consultants, policy makers and influencers – and some of the most knowledgeable and engaging people we’ve encountered in the field. That includes Timothy Creagan with the United States Access Board; Heidi Walters from the American Foundation for the Blind; and Matt Ater from Freedom Scientific, the makers of JAWS screen-reader technology. Terry Weaver, currently of Weaver Consulting and formerly of the General Services Administration (GSA), will be there as well. In fact, many of the contributors speaking throughout the day are visually impaired themselves, offering a first-hand perspective from the community affected by government’s accessibility efforts.

The panelists will be offering their perspectives on a number of issues. Some of the questions we’re looking to ask include:

  • How much impact has Section 508 had within the federal government, and what impacts can we anticipate within the private sector moving forward?
  • Why is legislative compliance so slow to happen?
  • How will digital accessibility impact more traditional formats, such as Braille and large print?
  • Should all digital content, including documents, be presented in HTML?
  • Should we be moving towards the standardization of XML for mobile devices?

And of course, after the panel session is complete, attendees will have the opportunity to ask their own questions, and interact with the experts to find out anything they need to do.

But that’s just our morning plans for the event. There’s even more on offer in the afternoon. I’ll go into more detail on that in my next blog post.

If you’re interested in finding out more on Automation and the Changing Landscape of Section 508: Government Digital Accessibility Training, or receiving an invitation, please contact me via LinkedIn or email to skelly@actuate.com.

Attending the Web Accessibility Day

Earth lighted up from withinOne Day in Maryland

Companies around the globe are looking to make their web content accessible for the visually impaired. But they want to do so in the most efficient, knowledge-based way they can, so that they don’t make mistakes and waste needless funds in the process. To do that, they need the right information.

With this in mind, the National Federation of the Blind’s Center of Excellence, along with the Maryland Technology Assistance Program, hosted a Web Accessibility Day in September. Held in Baltimore, Maryland, it was designed for both private and public organizations, with the goal of informing them on policy and technical innovations, and discussing the issues related to web accessibility today.

Actuate was invited to present at the training day, giving me the chance to experience the event from two perspectives: as an attendee, gleaning knowledge from the other presenters, and as a presenter myself, experiencing the reactions attendees had to Actuate’s own PDF accessibility technology. It ended up being a great day, and I wanted to share my experiences and insights from it here.

Panels and Policy Presenters

One of the first presentations of the day was “The Natural Outcome of Innovation and Inclusive Business,” by Eve Hill from the U.S. Department of Justice. Eve discussed what the Department of Justice has done and is continuing to do to influence accessible web environments. She wasn’t the only government representative at the event, either – in the afternoon’s policy-based sessions, representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and the Maryland State Board of Elections presented, as did Timothy Creagan from the U.S. Access Board, who offered an overview of the on Section 508 refresh.

Directly following Eve’s presentation, though, were two panels – one dedicated to “Enterprise Implementation of Accessibility” and another to “Education Implementation of Accessibility.” Both were informative, but the first was especially interesting, featuring among other panelists a representative from the retailer Target. Target faced its own NFB-led lawsuit back in 2006, but now they are a poster child of what companies can do to get web accessibility right. Today, they’re not only addressing accessibility in terms of their web content, and are blazing the trails on mobile technology – all while collaborating with the NFB all the way, Talk about making lemons into lemonade. Hopefully more companies can learn from their lead.

Talking Tech

While the morning sessions were underway, a select group of vendors were invited to set up tables at the back of the room, so that attendees could come over during breaks to find out more about the technology and resources available around accessible web content. Actuate was there, as was Knowbility, a non-profit group dedicated to improving technology access for people with disabilities; Ai Squared was showcasing their ZoomText magnification and screen reading software; SSB Bart, an accessibility consulting group, was available for questions; NetCentric Technologies was highlighting what’s new with their CommonLook product and the Bureau of Internet Accessibility (BOIA), which focuses on website testing for accessibility, was demonstrating their tool as well. Between sessions, attendees approached the tables, getting any information they needed on the resources available to them.

We had great interest from attendees there, and even more when I presented later on during the afternoon’s technical sessions, which also featured representatives from Deque Systems and Google. I was excited by the amount of response my presentation – “PDF Accessibility in an Enterprise Setting” – garnered, with great detailed questions from the audience centered around best practices for alt text. I was surprised to see how many people attended this session from the publishing industry and higher education – both seeking accessibility solutions for high volumes of documents and content. It’s clear that government and private companies alike are aware of the importance of accessibility – and are looking for solutions to help them along the way. And for the visually impaired community, that’s a great start.

Accessibility Meets Mobility: Review of M-Enabling Summit 2014

First published on G3ict.

I attended the third edition of the M-Enabling Summit on Accessible Mobile Technology for Seniors and Users of All Abilities, this year in Washington, D.C. Here is my quick review of the event highlights.

How important is mobile technology?

To answer that, you need to consider not only the mobile usage of your friends and colleagues – who, if they’re anything like mine, probably pull out their smart phones and tablets every chance they get – but also the usage of mobile technology around the world. That includes developing countries and rural areas, where the placement of cellular service towers and affordable mobile devices have given even remote and underdeveloped communities access to goods and services via the internet. This global access has opened up commerce for a market that now reaches all corners of the world.

Mobile technology has become incredibly important from both a social and commercial perspective – ensuring more widespread access to services, information and products. But its new prevalence also highlights the importance of making the technology accessible to everyone – including seniors and individuals with disabilities, particularly visual and hearing impairments.

It’s with that in mind that in June this year, I attended the 3rd annual M-Enabling Summit in Washington, DC(check out event proceedings).

Enabling Everyone
Focused on “accessible mobile technology for senior citizens and users of all abilities,” the M-Enabling Summit this year featured discussions on everything from social media and web search accessibility, to mobile accessibility as it relates to commerce. Accessibility on the mobile front is an area Actuate is interested in examining further, so I went hoping to learn more about trends in the field. I wasn’t the only one either: a who’s who of the accessibility thought leaders attended, coming from both the private and public arenas – including representatives from the big telcos and cable providers, and financial institutions and – the likes of AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, Comcast, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Scotia Bank; Technology leaders Adobe, Microsoft, Yahoo, and IBM were onboard, as were several federal government agencies and non-profit disability advocacy groups. For a conference with an estimated 500 attendees, it was certainly a highly concentrated and focused accessibility group!

So, why this focused accessibility attention on mobile technology? After all, a significant segment of potential mobile customers have disabilities, including those with low or no vision. In fact, according to the World Health Organizationapproximately 285 million people around the world are estimated to be visually impaired – of those,  90% live in developing countries, where mobile devices may be their only way of participating in online commerce. Approximately 82% are 50 or older, meaning seniors also have a vested interest. Those customers don’t want to have to rely on someone else looking over their shoulder, having access to and reading their personal information. They want solutions that enable them to get information independently. And they want to – and have the right to – participate in commerce and make payments on their phones and tablets the same as everyone else does.

One of the sessions I attended at the summit – called Making Mobile Payments Accessible – examined just that. The panelists estimated that within five years mobile payments are likely to become as prevalent as GPS mapping or taking photos with your phone. Building accessible but mobile commerce options, then, is more important than ever.

Summit Highlights 
The event didn’t disappoint. While the session on mobile payments was one of key interest to me, I also sat in on several others. Another was Integrating Accessible Mobile Solutions in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities for CIOs, which looked at how CIOs can integrate accessible mobile platforms into the workplace, to include and enhance the productivity of their employees with disabilities. What Corporations Need to Know About Mobile Accessibility Compliance: Latest Rules for the Implementation of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, meanwhile, examined new regulatory developments regarding the accessibility of mobile devices and services – and how those changes may affect corporations of all stripes.

It was an informative two days that broadened my knowledge of mobile accessibility, and that will hopefully help influence Actuate’s own accessibility efforts going forward. In fact, it may have been my first time attending the M-Enabling Summit, but it definitely won’t be my last. It’s an important, ever-changing field, and I can’t wait to see how it develops!

Accessibility on All Fronts: Creating Accessible Web Content

Accessibility for everyoneHow are companies today faring when it comes to creating accessible environments for their customers?

The answer is more complicated than you might think. Because if you visit a modern office building, or even take a look at corporate websites, accessibility has obviously become a key ingredient for most businesses today. Companies want all of their customers to be able to reach them, whether that means adding wheelchair ramps to their offices, or accessibility tags to their websites. Those that don’t make the efforts have quickly found that there are hefty legal repercussions and lawsuits waiting for them if they don’t comply.

But to truly be able to access services, information, etc., individuals with disabilities must have a comparable opportunity to go everywhere customers without disabilities can. And that means businesses need more than wheelchair ramps and accessible websites – they need accessible web content as well.

I wrote about exactly this issue in a recent article for Business Solutions magazine, entitled “Creating Fully Accessible Web Content: The Industrial Approach.” The article looked at the changing face of accessible content – from a time when companies required the visually impaired to identify themselves as disabled, and then wait for content to be sent to them in accessible paper formats like Braille, to now, when the visually impaired require and demand immediately  available online content, just like everybody else. To stay compliant – and to keep all of their customers happy – companies need to build new options into all of their online content, including PDF statements, account notices and bills.

For that to become the norm, though, companies need to embrace technology, specifically automation.  They need a technology that’s scalable to their customers’ needs—because building accessibility into these PDF documents manually is too cost and time intensive and simply cannot provide an equivalent or even comparable experience. That means introducing automation with intelligence to maintain standards compliant accessibility rules and formats, to generate these statements, bills and notices accessibly on-demand so that they and readable and usable by those using screen readers.

It’s only once that content becomes easily accessible and usable that companies start to come close to true accessibility – and actual regulatory compliance. But they’ll be one step closer to something else, too: customer loyalty. And that can be a hard thing to find in today’s competitive environment.

If you want to know more about creating accessible web content, read my original article published by Business Solutions Magazine.

Accessible PDFs: Questions, Thoughts and Ideas from a Social Network Exchange

First published on G3ict.org

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:
http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=41800&type=member&item=266438271&trk=groups_search_item_list-0-b-ttl.

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.

See more on PDF Accessibility:

» PDF accessibility using PDF/UA format: PDF/UA: What is it? Why is it relevant?

» PDF Association’s PDF/UA Competence Center

PDF Accessibility: What’s in Store?

Post was first published on Media Access Australia’s AccessIQ

There’s been a lot of talk lately, in technology circles, about what’s in store for PDFs. For organisations that are looking for ways to ensure on-demand accessibility for high volumes of PDFs created at the enterprise IT infrastructure level—this is a particularly relevant question.

With that in mind, I wanted to address it here, and offer my own two cents on what I think is going to happen with PDFs—and, specifically, accessible PDFs.

The end of the PDF?

The debate comes down to this: is the PDF being replaced by HTML and XML formats? Many feel that it should be, arguing that HTML and XML simply offer a better user experience, and are easier to make accessible, with a tagged structure inherently compatible to screen reader technology for the blind. From my perspective, though, PDFs aren’t going anywhere—for several different reasons.

First of all, Adobe has invested a lot at the code level for creating better PDFs, including the PDF/UA format, a universally accessible PDF format meant to help PDFs more easily meet accessibility standards and requirements.

And companies, as well, have invested heavily in PDF technology, because most organisations still utilise PDFs—in fact, it’s still the de facto standard for communicating information in a format that’s viewable to most readers.

A trusted technology

Even for those companies who may be using HTML for some uses, there still exists a need for PDFs. Take a bank, for instance. Banks regularly offer their banking information in rich HTML on their online portals, for an informative, user-friendly experience. Most customers wouldn’t think of searching out a PDF in lieu of that experience—at least not for their everyday banking.

Most financial institutions have invested heavily in creating an IT architecture that allows massive amounts of data to be funneled through different types of processes and applications to be converted to both a print file—that goes to the printer and results in the paper statement some still receive via snail mail—and a PDF file, the de facto standard for online presentment.

But banks also have a legal obligation, as do other industries: they must meet regulatory compliance standards that often require the PDF format they output be the official record on file. So even if that bank is offering statement summary information through HTML, they still have an archive of PDF records.

And when individual clients need documentation, for instance, to prove creditworthiness for a mortgage or a loan, HTML won’t cut it—they need the official PDF documentation for those purposes as well.

Accessible answers

From an accessibility standpoint, HTML does have the advantage that covers all scenarios. Tag structure is inherent to HTML, so accessibility can be built in during design. PDFs, on the other hand, often need the tags added, since many are simply output as image-only PDFs.

But technology is  now available  that can  automate the accessibility of these PDFs, making communications created in high volumes at the enterprise IT level, like bank statements, medical notices, bills, etc. completely accessible on-demand, at the same time for all customers—with and without disabilities.

And that’s important. Having full, independent access to information, especially critical financial and health information and documentation, is something no one should have to wait for since technology is available to make it happen. Because even with the growing use of HTML, I don’t think PDFs are going anywhere.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section below or contact me at skelly@actuate.com