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Accessible PDFs

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What are PDFs?

PDFs, or Portable Document Formats, is a file format that was developed by Adobe in 1992 that revolutionised the way we share documents to be accessed by anyone, regardless of the technology used to access them. Designed to maintain the integrity of document layouts and facilitate easy sharing across different platforms, PDFs quickly became ubiquitous in digital communication.

It is always better to use this format for documents, as they do not require the user to have any other software installed than a PDF reader, of which there are many freely available. It is possible to create a PDF from any document, either directly within your computer’s operating system or using free software to do the same. Their widespread adoption was further propelled when Adobe released the format for free in 1993, ensuring anyone could create or view a PDF with basic software.

The Accessibility Challenge with PDFs

Despite their convenience and versatility, PDFs present significant accessibility challenges, particularly for individuals who rely on assistive technologies. Screen readers, voice dictation systems, and other tools are invaluable for users with disabilities, enabling navigation and interaction with digital content without traditional input methods like a mouse.

However, the structure of many PDF documents does not naturally accommodate these technologies. Key issues include:

  • Navigational Difficulties: For users navigating with keyboard commands or voice input, PDFs often lack a logical tab order, making it difficult to follow the document's flow or access specific content efficiently.
  • Inaccessible Content: Elements such as images, tables, and even text can be inaccessible if not properly tagged or formatted, leaving users unable to access critical information.
  • Complex Remediation: Addressing these issues to make PDFs fully accessible is not straightforward. Proper remediation requires a deep understanding of both the technical standards for accessibility and the specific needs of users with disabilities.

Legal Implications for Inaccessibility

The legal landscape around digital accessibility has evolved, with significant implications for organisations across public and private sectors:

  • Public Sector Requirements: In many jurisdictions, public sector entities are legally mandated to ensure digital accessibility, including PDF documents on their websites. Regulations such as those stemming from the EU Web Accessibility Directive set clear standards and deadlines for compliance, particularly for documents published after September 23, 2018, and those essential for accessing services.
  • Private Sector Responsibilities: While specific laws vary by country, many regions, including the UK under the Equality Act, require private sector organisations to ensure their digital content, including PDFs, is accessible. Non-compliance not only risks legal action but also damages reputation and customer trust.

Strategies for Creating Accessible PDFs

Creating accessible PDFs is not inherently more complex than producing traditional documents, but it does require mindfulness about accessibility from the start:

  1. Use Accessible Source Documents: The foundation of an accessible PDF is an accessible source document. Utilize built-in accessibility features in word processors and design software to structure content logically and use tags for headings, lists, and other elements.
  2. Proper Tagging and Formatting: Ensure that all non-text elements like images have alternative text descriptions, tables are properly tagged, and reading order is logical and sequential.
  3. Test with Assistive Technologies: Before finalising a PDF, test it with screen readers and other assistive technologies to identify and rectify navigational or content access issues.
  4. Seek Expert Assistance: Given the technical complexity of remediating existing PDFs and the evolving nature of accessibility standards, consulting with accessibility experts can be invaluable, especially for organisations with large volumes of documents.

While the challenge of making PDFs accessible can seem daunting, especially for organisations with extensive archives of documents, the benefits of doing so extend beyond legal compliance. Accessible documents are inherently more user-friendly, potentially expanding your audience and demonstrating a commitment to inclusivity. By embracing the principles of accessible design from the outset and leveraging available resources and expertise, organisations can significantly reduce the burden of PDF remediation and move towards a more inclusive digital future.

This is something we can help you with.

If you would like to find out more about how we could help you with making your PDF documents accessible, why not give us a call on +44-1243-776399 (24 hours), send an email to info@accessbydesign.uk or book a free 15-minute consultation by following this link.