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Dispelling Accessibility Myths: PDF/UA vs. WCAG

Posted by: Laura Clark
on 05, Oct 2021
from Oakville, Ontario

Accessing information digitally is a vital part of taking part in modern society. As responsible information creators, it's essential to ensure digital documents are accessible for those with visual or cognitive impairment. Some myths are floating around about PDF accessibility, and we thought it was high time to dispel some myths and share best practices for accessible PDF technology.

What is Digital Accessibility?

Thankfully, we're all starting to be more aware of the inherent ableism of the world around us. Accessibility in the physical world is easy for most to understand, and adding ramps and elevators allows people with physical disabilities to gain access to as many spaces as possible.

In the digital world, it can be a little harder to understand. Some examples of digital accessibility include:

  • Screen Readers: an essential piece of technology for those with visual impairments to interact with digital content. It turns whatever text is on a screen into auditory information.
  • ALT-Text: A short description of an image, which a screen reader can read out.
  • Closed Captioning: Subtitles are added to videos on websites to ensure those with hearing or processing impairment can understand.

Top Tip: We know that you can't know what you don't know. Have a little peek over here to learn some more about digital accessibility.

Myth: HTML is Automatically More Accessible Than PDF

The myth of HTML being more accessible than PDF stems from the fact that PDFs that have been created for offline use can sometimes lead to a poor experience for end-users.

Remember that a PDF is not intended to be web content and should be treated as a document with a different set of specifications. Comparing HTML and PDF is comparing apples and oranges. They have different functions and can both be made accessible for their respective functionality.

Some screen reader users report preferring HTML because a PDF can be a super accessible document, or it can be a scanned picture. Images can't be processed by screen readers and instead will say something about the document being empty. If that happens to you enough times, it can lead to a clear preference for HTML.

The truth is that both HTML and PDF can provide fantastic user experiences and be made fully accessible as long as accessibility is thought about from the beginning. We firmly believe that PDF/UA and WCAG 2.1 are complementary products.

What is PDF/UA?

PDF/UA stands for portable document format/universal accessibility. Say that five times fast! Formally it is known as ISO 14289, and it is a set of requirements for universally accessible PDFs. In other words, if this normative technical standard is followed, companies can achieve accessibility within a PDF context.

Important: For years, people have been saying that a PDF cannot be made accessible, and that is not true. A fully accessible UA compliant PDF can be just as accessible as a WCAG compliant website.

What Are Some of the PDF/UA Requirements?

PDF/UA requirements get pretty specific, but here are some of them to give you an idea of what it takes to make a document universally accessible:

  • Tags: meaningful content needs to be tagged, whereas artifacts (e.g., decorative page elements) can be marked as such.
  • Logical Reading Order: a complete structure tree has to reflect your documents logical reading order
  • Alternative Text: any pictorial elements (that's, images, charts, etc.) need corresponding alternative text
  • Navigation: must be possible by page numbers, through the structure tree, or bookmarks

How Do I Make Information in a Document Accessible?

Whether you're looking to make a PDF or website accessible, accessible content needs to be considered from the very beginning. Otherwise, you're wasting a lot of valuable time trying to retrofit accessibility, and that approach to inclusion doesn't help anyone.

You need:

  • The Right Tool: Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, or InDesign cannot technically generate a compliant PDF.
  • The Right Skill Set: creating accessible content is a specific skill set. Your organization needs an understanding of what's required to create accessibility. People must be taught how to construct and build an accessible PDF properly.

Careful: Do not be tempted to take a shortcut to accessibility. PDF/UA allows us to create widely accessible information for a wide range of disabilities. Accessibility isn't about going through a checklist. It is about careful consideration and going beyond good enough.

Accessibility and Compliance

Accessibility compliance varies significantly across the globe, but in a nutshell, you could be seen as non-compliant if you do not offer access to people of all types of disabilities.

When we make our files PDF/UA compliant, we get that rich semantic experience that a sighted user is looking for. Additionally, it also unlocks more of what your graphic designers and authors are trying to create, which is a visual experience for everyone.

Keeping PDFs Accessible and Up To Date

Another myth floating around is that PDFs are less likely to be kept up to date than HTML websites. This is an issue with information maintenance rather than the PDF itself. We've all been frustrated and inconvenienced by broken links.

Thankfully, tools like ADScan can be used to quickly and easily see:

  • what documents you have across your site
  • which of these documents are accessible
  • which documents have been tagged/not tagged

Appropriate monitoring lets you make updates where necessary, just like on a web page. We'd go as far as to say that a monitoring tool like ADScan is the foundation to building a successful document accessibility strategy.

All About AbleDocs

At AbleDocs, we've made it our mission to push the limits of document accessibility. We provide document accessibility products and services as well as vital education. We're here for you whether you want to create accessible content, check documents for accessibility compliance, or learn how to develop and validate.

Get in touch to find out how you can meet the challenges of PDF accessibility.

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Who are we?

Since its founding in 2019, AbleDocs has become a world leader in digital accessibility with offices in nine countries. AbleDocs offers products and services to organizations that help to ensure high volume document accessibility compliance, document accessibility testing, accessibility training, and web accessibility compliance.

AbleDocs is the only company in the world to guarantee the compliance of every document they produce and back it with a $10,000,000 liability guarantee. Current offerings include ADService, ADGateway, ADScan, ADStream, ADLegacy, ADForms, ADTraining, ADWeb, axesWord and axesPDF.