PDFs and Accessibility
When it comes to online content and sharing information electronically, there’s one format you can never really get away from – PDFs. The format’s versatility and ease of use has led to its ubiquity, but that has not necessarily made it automatically an accessible format.
From our experience with a wide range of organizations and their needs, we have seen that there are two concerns when it comes to accessible PDFs – making new documents more accessible right out of the gate, and retroactively making existing documents accessible.
Let’s get started with the slightly easier of the two; that is, making new PDF documents accessible as you are creating them.
Ensuring accessibility as you create PDFs
Many times, you or someone in your organization is creating a PDF from a different type of existing file, such as a Word document. Why is this important to point out? Because, since PDF creation is often more of a file conversion than a from-scratch process, we have to begin with approaching your original file from an accessibility standpoint.
As you are working in Word (or InDesign, or wherever), you want to structure your document to be as user friendly as possible. This includes how you are organizing information (think of how it might be read by a screen reader, for example), whether there are tables or charts included (and how those are captioned/described/titled), etc.
There are a few more things to do to ensure that the transition is a smooth and successful one. You’ll need to save your original document with a descriptive title, and set the language to correspond to the language of the content (English, for example).
Then, order your content so that it’s in an easy-to-understand structure, organized logically and simple to follow or find. You can include a table of contents, headings, ordered lists (bulleted), page numbers, and more.
In the case of headers, you can approach them in a similar way to a webpage. For instance, H1 is the main topic, and H2 represents important subtopics, etc. Alt text, links with anchor text, media, and other features should follow the same standards for appropriate tagging and organization.
Why all this detail for a simple PDF document? Well, just imagine that you were to turn your monitor off and try to navigate a long (loooong) PDF form by listening to it being read out loud – for the entire length of the document. Obviously, navigational options that allowed you to jump right to the most relevant content would be genuinely helpful. And this is what a proper structure and tagging provide for users who are relying on screen readers or other assistive technology.
The good news
The biggest part of your structure battle in the PDF format is partially handled for you by Acrobat Pro – tagging. Just as in a webpage, tags mark and delineate the content so that screen readers can provide users with an accurate concept of the content and its organization. Fortunately, tags are added automatically when you save your PDF as a tagged document. But that’s only part of the battle.
The next step is to open your PDF and make sure that there are, in fact, tags where needed, and that they are the right tags for their respective sections of the document (headers, tables, paragraphs, etc.). This is your opportunity to make sure that everything is accurate and easy to follow. Taking a little time here can save a lot of time for both users and for your team (in the event that you have to go back and update/upgrade this document in the future).
Bringing old PDFs up to speed
While not impossible, retroactively upgrading older PDFs to be more accessible is a more difficult and imperfect process. In these cases you are not aiming at perfection; instead, you are looking to provide a more accessible document than what previously was available.
If the original file (Word document, etc.) is still available, you’re in luck! You can simply open that file, go through the steps and checks mentioned above, and then export a document that is already more accessible. This is the best-case scenario, and one that makes it worth a little extra time to see if you can hunt down those original source files.
However, if you have only the existing PDF to work with, all hope is not lost. There are a number of steps you can take to bring older PDFs closer to the accessibility standards you are aiming for.
First up, run a scan of the existing PDF. You can do this utilizing Adobe’s accessibility checker which, while it doesn’t spot every shortcoming, does an excellent job of providing you with a starting point and a number of changes that can be made to make the document better for all users.
Second, check and fix the text. Some older PDFs have text saved as an image, but Adobe’s optical character recognition can convert the image back to actual text – a big help in this case.
Then you’ll check for and improve tags, just as described earlier.
Finally, the real labor-intensive work comes into play. You’ll want to manually check that your images have descriptive and accurate alt text, links utilize descriptive anchor text, language and document titles are in place, important bookmarks are present, and so on.
PDFs and your responsibilities
While there are no legally agreed upon standard requirements for PDF accessibility, the WCAG 2.0 AA and PDF/UA or PDF/Universal Accessibility are your best bets when setting goals for document accessibility. Because PDF accessibility is not a fixed goal but a range of accommodations and considerations, it is up to each creator and/or organization to establish their standards and best practices. Following the guidelines listed above and making a good-faith effort to provide more accessible documents across the board are the best places to start. Additionally, your efforts will be noticed by those who need them most, and your information will be available to more people regardless of how they interact with the internet.