Web and PDF Accessibility: New Tools for Changing Times

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Friday, 15 May 2015 10:28am

Tim Connell, Managing Director at adaptive technology company Quantum talks about web and document accessibility. Tim spoke to media Access Australia following his presentation at the 2015 Print Disabilities Conference held May 2-5 in Adelaide, South Australia.

Quantum: Reading, Learning, Vision logo

For people unfamiliar with web accessibility, could you outline some of the challenges and issues around access to websites for people with disabilities?

Tim Connell: As more information and services are moved to an online model, predominantly via websites, there is a heightened need to ensure that they can be used by all people. There are some clear guidelines for making websites accessible that have been developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, known as WCAG 2.0.

Failure to create accessible websites is both inequitable and illegal, as well as diminishing the reach and usefulness of any such website. Creating an accessible website using these guidelines can be done without any real overhead in time or resources, but it is harder to retrofit accessibility into a site that has been poorly designed.

The biggest challenge lies with the webmasters, IT managers and management of organisations that are simply unaware of the law or their social obligations. Without a clear Accessibility Strategy, many organisations fail to develop or retain skills around Accessibility and expose themselves to litigation.

There is a second issue around website accessibility, particularly for people without an identified disability. Many people struggle to use the Web due to poor literacy, lack of familiarity or access to technology, or who are not native language speakers. Good design and assistive tools integrated into a website can help make any website much more accessible for everyone.

What are some of the tools available for web developers, designers and content authors to use to help improve web accessibility? Are there any available for website end-users too?

For developers and designers the first requirement is that they understand the law and develop their websites within an Accessibility Strategy that reflects their organisation’s relationship to their clients and audience. If we compare digital accessibility to the physical access to buildings, the website is like the front door of the organisation. They need to create the digital ramp at the front of the building. The tools they use are the WCAG2.0 guidelines.

To extend the building analogy, once inside there needs to other rooms and facilities, also designed to be accessible. Then there are the things we put into those rooms, the content, consisting of documents, forms and resources that are used by the organisation and its visitors. There is little value in having an accessible website that is full of inaccessible content but this is quite common.

There are an increasing number of tools available; however, the biggest obstacles are a lack of awareness, understanding and training. For example, the proper use of Microsoft Word formatting and style controls will go a long way to making an accessible document, but only a small minority of people use them. Embedded tools such as the Commonlook Office add-in, or Accessibility features built into Adobe, are examples of tools that can assist authors.

For end users with disabilities there are specialised assistive technology tools such as JAWS, ZoomText, WYNN, and Magic that will interpret and vocalise information, or magnify and change colours and contrasts. There are also an increasing number of free options, such as NVDA screen reader and VoiceOver for Macs, as well as apps that can be used on mobile devices and desktop PCs.

However, research has shown that the majority of people that need such tools don’t have them, hence we are seeing the development of more generalised accessibility tools such as BrowseAloud, that can be embedded into a website and provide a range of accessibility features for end-users such as text-to-speech, highlighting, language translation or converting content to an audio MP3 file.

For people unfamiliar with document accessibility, could you outline some of the challenges and issues around access to common document formats such as PDFs?

PDF (Portable Document Format) accounts for over 70 per cent of the documents on websites around the world so it is imperative that organisations develop strategies and policies to use PDF and ensure their accessibility. PDFs can be created in a variety of ways, with different levels of security and features. Some options are completely inaccessible (an image file) and many vary in their level of accessibility. Some of the features that are needed in accessible PDF documents are:

  • Proper tagging of files (a tag is readable by a screen reader)
  • Correct semantic structure (heading, tables, structure)
  • Equivalent information for images (the use of alt text)
  • Understandable information (information that can be spoken)
  • Resizable text
  • Colour and contrast options

What are some of the tools available for web developers, designers and content authors to use to help improve PDF accessibility? Are there any available for website end-users too?

PDF/UA (ISO 14289-1:2012) is the international standard for accessible PDF technology, including PDF files, PDF readers and PDF-consuming assistive technology. PDF/UA sets clear rules for developers and authors of tagged PDF documents and forms. When implemented by conforming PDF writers, readers and assistive technology, PDF/UA assures an accessible reading and interactive experience. Unlike WCAG 2.0, PDF/UA is entirely specific to PDF technology, and represents a best-practice for applying WCAG 2.0 standards to content in PDF format. For end-users, some assistive technology tools now incorporate PDF Readers that in effect scan and OCR (optical character recognition) any document. The recent release of Jaws version 16 has this capability.

What’s your take on PDF accessibility—is it a format that should be avoided or can it be made accessible for people with disabilities and other users?

The first step is to consider why PDF has become such an international standard.

PDF was designed from scratch with key characteristics that set it aside from any other format and has led to it becoming ubiquitous. These features include:

  1. Platform-independence. PDF files work on all sorts of operating systems and browsers.
  2. Precise control over the positioning and appearance of content. PDF pages look the same no matter where or how they are viewed or printed.
  3. A freely available and usable specification. Since 1993, anyone who could write software could make a PDF file without paying Adobe any royalty.
  4. Always-and-forever free Adobe Reader and other software deliver a consistent viewing experience whether on Windows, Mac OS, Linux or other operating systems and software.
  5. The PDF format supports multiple security, authentication, annotation, workflow and other business features that together make the format uniquely useful for a vast range of publishing and business purposes.

PDF files may be deployed on websites but PDF is not inherently a web-based format; it’s a document format first, web-content second, meaning accessibility is not guaranteed unless the author considers it from the outset.

In Australia a de facto strategy has developed to include an alternative to PDF documents on a website, such as a Word or text file. Apart from the extra work in managing multiple formats, there is no guarantee that these other formats are also going to be accessible or meaningful. The idea of avoiding PDFs entails limiting access to the vast majority of information on the web.

Final thoughts on how people should be approaching document accessibility?

The struggle to achieve universal accessibility of information will follow a similar trajectory to other accessibility issues, such as access to transportation, and access to the built environment. It will take a combination of legislation, policy and strong advocacy to achieve significant change.

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