Automation in PDF Tagging: The Pros, Cons, and Risks

 In Articles, PDF Accessibility

In this article, we’ll explore the importance of adhering to standards, as opposed to the “best user experience” approach, when making sure PDFs are accessible to people with disabilities.  We’ll also explain how this approach not only provides the best, and most consistent, end-user experience but also dramatically reduces your legal risk against non-conformance to accessibility laws.

Importance of Standards-Centric Compliance

There are a few different schools of thought around PDF accessibility – making PDFs readable, understandable, and useable to people who have disabilities. Some will argue that conforming to accessibility standards (WCAG 2.0, Section 508, or PDF/UA, for example) shouldn’t be the main goal and that the focus should, instead, be on providing the end user with the best experience possible.


One Size Does Not Fit All

While probably everyone would agree that a positive end-user experience is ideal, there are flaws with this approach.  There are, unfortunately, a wide variety – and range in severity – of disabilities that require people to use assistive technology (AT).  People who are blind or significantly visually impaired may use screen-reading software or braille keyboards to read PDFs.  People with limited mobility may use tools like a specialized mouse, a mouth stick, or sip-and-puff technology to navigate through documents or complete electronically fillable forms.  Some people will use voice recognition software to accomplish various tasks.  While striving to give everyone the best user experience, it’s important to know that, with all of the assistive technologies available today, they don’t all necessarily work the same – or as well.  We’ll come back to that.


It Comes Back to Standards

When it comes to making sure that things are accessible, two factors come into play.  First, the PDF needs to be tagged (“coded”) properly so that AT can accurately read it.  This is where the standards come into play.  The standards provide guidelines for how to tag things like images, tables, lists, and headings (think “Styles” in Word, for example) in a PDF.  The second factor, then, is that AT devices and software need to follow the same “rules” so that when a table, for example, is tagged according to the standards it’s being presented to the end user correctly. As mentioned, the fact is that not all assistive technologies will read PDFs the same way.  They don’t always play by the same rules.  Some AT developers strive to make their software and/or devices achieve a higher bar than what is set by the standard – going for that “optimal end-user experience.”  Some developers stick more closely to the “letter of the law” (or, the standard) while others, unfortunately, fall short.  So, you may ask, how does this affect you and your PDF tagging?  Your safest and best bet for achieving accessibility is to adhere to the standards.  The standards themselves are not software specific and are written to be more general so that content will be read accurately by the majority of assistive technologies.


Part-Way There Is Not OK

Oftentimes I’ll hear the argument, “Well, ‘X’ brand screen-reader reads this ok.”  But that’s not really ok.  What if other people who need to read your documents are using “Y” brand screen-reader?  Furthermore, when it comes to potentially having to defend yourself in court, in an accessibility case, the argument above – that screen-reader “X” reads it ok – won’t hold water.  Proving that you met the requirements of the standards will. A similar argument, when it comes to whether or not you need to fully conform with accessibility standards is this: “We have so many PDFs to worry about, if we can get to 80, 70, or even 60% accessible that’s better than nothing.”  While many people may agree that “some is better than nothing,” I challenge you with this…  Ask someone who is blind if getting only 80% of the information in a document is acceptable to them.  Is it ok if they can only complete 70% of the form that they need to fill out and submit?  Ask someone in a wheelchair if getting 60% of the way up the ramp and into the building is ok.  I’d be willing to guess that their responses would be, “No.”  In the world of ADA, that’s a lawsuit just waiting to happen!


Protect Yourself

If you really want to make sure that your content is accessible to people with disabilities, and if you want to avoid the legal hassles that can result from having inaccessible content, the solution is really pretty simple – make sure you’re in conformance with accessibility standards.  A widely recognized standard, used around the world and required by the US Federal Government, is WCAG 2.0.  WCAG (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) works for websites as well as PDFs on those websites (as well as other PDFs, too).  A standard specific to PDF documents is PDF/UA (the “UA” stands for “Universal Accessibility”).  Check them out.  Make sure you’re in conformance.  Make your stakeholders happy and avoid legal risk – it’s a win-win!