Developing a Business Case for Accessible PDF

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Accessible PDF can help your organization improve communications, reduce overhead and help you stand out from the rest. What’s not to like?


The W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative did a great job summarizing the components of a business case for web accessibility aligned with WCAG 2.0. The following article is not intended to amend or substitute for their excellent and far more extensive efforts.

It’s simply that not all content is web content; there are electronic documents to consider as well.

Accessible PDF works better for everyone

The benefits of accessible electronic documents go well beyond people with disabilities and the organizations interacting with them. With PDF/UA support in readers and AT, older and mobile device users could benefit from a tailored – yet consistent – reading experience of PDF/UA conforming files. Once search engines index PDF content using PDF tags, almost everyone who uses the internet with benefit from improved search results.

Organizations delivering accessible PDF files via website, email, download and other means will benefit by reduced legal risk, demonstration of social responsibility and increased customer satisfaction and loyalty due to improved communications.

By aligning measures to enable and promote accessibility with core business functions, organizations can realize significant return on investment (ROI) that reduces the costs of implementation and training to ensure that electronic documents are accessible. Once the full social, technical and financial benefits of electronic documents are understood, it often becomes clear that the true ROI of accessibility efforts is significantly greater than initially estimated.

The technical and operational details of electronic document accessibility in the PDF context tend to focus on ensuring the needs of users with blindness and motor-function limitations are met. Getting it right for these users in the PDF format requires attention to a lot of detailed technical points, many with inadequate definitions in ISO 32000-1, the file format specification for PDF.

That’s really why PDF/UA was created; to clarity how to achieve accessibility given the mechanisms outlined (but under-specified) in PDF itself.

Once reliable, consistent content identification, ordering and semantics are addressed, solutions for users with other disabilities become far easier to achieve.

EXAMPLE: Well tagged PDF files (that is, properly validated with a tool such as CommonLook PDF) may be used to generate clean HTML, which in turn may be styled for some needs, or read aloud with on-screen highlighting for other users.

PDF is extremely popular for extremely good reasons


PDF is an electronic mimic of paper, the preferred document technology for the vast majority of the past 2,000 years (or so). For record-keeping, for drafting, for compiling, for filing, for archiving – PDF is a key technology in the modern world because it has the ability to (literally) substitute for paper.

There are as many ways to use PDF as there are to use paper as a medium for documents. Actually, there are considerably MORE ways to use PDF.

Fundamentally PDF is useful and important because while being electronic it’s still very similar to paper in (almost) all important ways.

As such, PDF files play a key and growing role in many aspects of communications. In almost any setting and in every economic sector, from banking to education to healthcare and government, PDF is uncontested as the “final-form” electronic document format of choice.

PDF is popular for manuals, formal reports, invoices, application forms, clinical records, mortgages and a myriad of other types of situations where portability and reliability are key.

It is, therefore, essential that PDF be accessible in order to provide equal access and equal opportunities to people with disabilities. As the WAI points out, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) recognizes accessible information and communications technologies as a basic human right.

Real Business Value from Accessible, Usable PDF

Let’s go through a few cases in which the electronic document (as distinct from web content) perspective is key to understanding accessibility, enhancing communications and business value.

Getting on the Same Page

hands-at-tableBefore we even talk about fancy PDF forms – what about a typical PDF file and its pages. What is a “page” anyway? According to WCAG 2.0 a “web page” doesn’t just mean static HTML but can mean an “entire virtual interactive community”.

Ok, let’s not do “virtual interactive communities” inside PDF. Let’s start with the more prosaic question: does “web page” mean a single PDF page (akin to a single side of paper, or a static HTML page), or does it apply to an entire PDF document of however many pages?

There’s quite a big difference, but WCAG 2.0 doesn’t recognize it.

PDFs often differ from what one thinks of as “typical web pages” because they are often dozens, hundreds or thousands of pages long. Long as they may be, PDF pages aren’t usually navigated with links. All users, AT users included, tend to depend on headings or PDF’s bookmarks feature instead.

PDF pages often include printed page numbers which can be critical for navigational purposes but aren’t really part of the document’s content. Does the sheer size of a document affect requirements for accessibility? WCAG 2.0 doesn’t really speak to any of this.

When the document, reader and AT all conform with PDF/UA, the [[what-is-pdfua new accessibility standard for PDF technology]], it will be possible for AT users to follow a page number or heading-based reference to a specific location in the document as easily as anyone else.

PDF/UA requires printed page numbers be treated as “artifacts” to ensure they don’t appear to the AT user in the middle of a sentence or word but remain accessible and associated with the page’s content. PDF/UA also recognizes that the document’s physical page count (as distinct from the printed page number) is significant for equal access to content, and requires this information be accessible.

NV Access, the organization that makes NVDA, the free open source screen reader (NetCentric is a proud supporter of NVDA development) has announced their ongoing effort to support PDF/UA, the first AT developer to do so.

In the latest release NVDA is adding support for PDF page labels to facilitate navigation by page number in PDF files, among other enhancements for PDF.

The Problem: There are many ways to navigate PDF files, but until PDF/UA, no definitive, technically specific rules on achieving accessible navigation in PDF.

The Solution: Conformance with PDF/UA, which requires that headings be logical and that both PDF’s page labels and printed page numbers are fully supported in conforming PDF readers and AT.

Why PDF is Different: Physical pages, pagination and navigation without hyperlinks don’t fit well into WCAG 2.0’s “web page” orientation. PDF/UA provides technically explicit requirements appropriate to PDF electronic documents.

Use “Fill and Print” instead of “Print to Fill” Forms

paper-formAlmost every business, government and non-profit on the planet uses fillable forms of one sort of another. In many cases, forms may be created in HTML to be filled on computer, tablet or phone. In many other cases, it’s important that the form look exactly the same when printed, or be usable offline, or requires that additional pages be attached – whatever.

I stumble into Print to Fill forms all the time on websites ranging from small businesses to Fortune 100 companies and Federal government agencies. I curse them each and every time. Forcing me to convert PDF to paper simply in order to add my name, address, etc. drives me nuts!

If it bothers me, can you understand how much it bothers, for example, a blind user, or some other AT user who can’t handle pen and paper for whatever reason?

They are just flat-out stuck; very possibly unable to even read the form, much less fill it.

The Problem: Unfillable PDF forms mean unnecessary emails and phone calls, aggravation for customer and business alike.

The Solution: Fillable, tagged PDF forms with good tool-tip text.

Why PDF is Different:  In PDF, a form may or may not include a way to enter information, but still be a form. To ensure all forms are accessible, check to be sure input fields are present (and of course, accessible).

Pre Filled Forms

A subspecies of fillable forms are those that are pre-filled; common in settings ranging from doctor’s offices to credit-card applications.

Pre-filled forms might already contain (for example) information to help with identification, updating records, speeding completion of the form, or for many other reasons. Also known as “flattened forms”, pre-filled forms can revolutionize workflows while enhancing readability and helping ensure accuracy in many settings.

Of course, a key feature of a pre-filled form is that even though no form fields are physically (technically) present, nonetheless, semantic form-fields exist and may contain information. The fact that the document is a pre-filled form is itself information.

The Problem: While they are useful in many workflows, AT users may not be able to access, understand or use pre-filled or flattened forms.

The Solution: PDF/UA conforming PDF files, readers and assistive technology.

Why PDF is different: PDF 1.7 (ISO 32000) provides a “PrintField” attribute, which allows software to locate pre-filled fields for the user. PDF/UA conformance requires support for this attribute in conforming readers and AT.

Digital Signatures

Paying for your goods on the internetOne doesn’t always think of the act of “signing on the dotted line” as completing a form, but from the electronic document point of view, that’s exactly what’s going on. Often used with a pre-filled form, signature fields make it possible for users to sign PDF documents using a variety of digital signature methods. It’s a lot easier to sign this way if your hands can’t hold a pen, or if you can’t actually see the “dotted line”.

Digital signatures in PDF allow users to participate in transactions in many ways. Use digital signatures to ensure the agreement of the signer is recorded, to help protect the agreement document against tampering, to provide validation of the user’s right to sign at the time of signing, and more.

I use digital signatures simply because it’s far easier than printing, signing and scanning! Digital signatures have come a long way.

The Problem: Signing documents is a basic transaction in the modern world, but it’s a lot harder for people with many types of disabilities.

The Solution: Ensure electronic documents include accessible digital signature fields, support and promote the use of digital signatures.

Why PDF is different: How do you sign a web page?

 A Gentle Pitch…

Of course, if you need help with these sorts of implementations, the folks here at NetCentric will be happy to provide you with a complete CommonLook solution to your PDF usability and accessibility needs. Feel free to get in touch.

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