Auto-tagging PDF for Accessibility

 In Articles, Education, PDF Accessibility

Beware of Auto-tagging: Not So Auto

In this article, we’ll explore the topic of auto-tagging PDFs.  We’ll debunk the myths, explain why “close” isn’t good enough when it comes to PDF accessibility, and help you and your organization save time and money!

Accessibility in PDF

PDF accessibility is a relatively new concept – or a new concern – for many businesses, and as a result, there are a lot of people who are just now trying to figure it out.  They’re realizing that making PDFs accessible to people who have disabilities can be complex, confusing, and intimidating.  In addition, with the increase in accessibility lawsuits over recent years, not only have companies realized they need to make their documents accessible, but other companies have realized that there’s money to be made in the PDF accessibility space.  Everybody wants the “Easy Button.”  Companies want to make money.  And, unfortunately, this sets up the perfect scenario for some companies to swoop in and claim, “We can do this automatically for you so you don’t even have to worry about it!”

“auto” tagging, not a good idea?

Some of these companies are making highly exaggerated claims about the level of accessibility offered by automation.  For example, they’ll claim to get documents 70% of the way there while, in reality, they may achieve only 10% except for the simplest of files.  Read the fine print – it’s there if you look.  On the surface, they’ll make claims like “Check out our auto-tool; we’ll make your PDFs accessible,” but if you dig a little deeper, they’ll admit that they don’t really get to 100%.  Furthermore, they likely don’t mention if they’re gauging “accessibility” against any recognized standards or if it’s just a “feel good” term.  That won’t stop them from pitching the line of how much time and money your organization can save by using their tool – and getting your PDFs “close enough.”  You know the saying, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”  Imagine if someone in a wheelchair could only get 70% of the way up the ramp and into a building.  Is “close” enough?  The door might be in sight but they’re still not in the building.  They don’t have equal access.  And you’re still at risk for not conforming to accessibility laws and standards.  The same applies to your PDFs and digital content.

Why Spend More?

CommonLook and Acrobat

To make PDFs accessible, step one is to make sure they are tagged.  Once PDFs are tagged, to get them 100% accessible, and conformant to accessibility standards, there are essentially two tools from which to choose.  One is Adobe Acrobat and the other, CommonLook PDF GlobalAccess, is a plug-in for Acrobat.  So, any way you cut it, you need Adobe Acrobat.

The companies touting their auto-tagging software, claiming that it’ll save your organization time and money, are leaving out one important detail.  Adobe Acrobat Professional has an auto-tagger built in!  If you’re trying to save your organization time and money by using an automated tool – even if that tool only gets you part of the way – why buy a new tool when you already have what you need?  And its actually a good one!  (Acrobat has been tagging PDFs longer than anyone else; they’ve put a lot into Research and Development to make their tagging work really well, and they continue to make it even better!  Another thing that these companies don’t want you to know is that Acrobat can automatically tag PDFs in bulk, too.)

That said, companies still claim that they do a better job than Acrobat.  Test them.  Take one copy of an untagged PDF, open it in Adobe Acrobat, and have Acrobat tag it.  Take another copy of the same untagged PDF, send it to one (or more) of these firms, and have them tag it (I’m sure they’ve sent you links to try them for free).  Then, compare the tagging between the two PDFs to see which one has more issues.  If you’re not sure how to check, run the Acrobat check on both documents, use the PAC-3 checker (free software that tests against the PDF/UA standard – here’s a link to the PAC-3 download page), and/or use the CommonLook Validator (another free tool that tests against WCAG 2.0, Section 508, and PDF/UA – and here’s a link to the CommonLook Validator page).  Unless you’ve chosen an incredibly simple PDF as your test document, you’ll most likely find that Acrobat’s tagging is far superior to the auto-tagging offered by other vendors.  And, again, it’s software you already own!

Getting the “Rest of the Way There”

As mentioned, there are essentially two tools to remediate PDFs, after tagging has been done.  One is Adobe Acrobat and the other is CommonLook PDF GlobalAccess.  So, at this point, you may be thinking to yourself, “Why should I buy a remediation tool if that’s already built into Acrobat, too?”  Good question.  While Adobe Acrobat does a good job tagging PDFs, there is almost always touch-up remediation work that needs to be done.  When it comes to things like lists, graphics, and complex tables, there’s often a lot of work that needs to be done.  Sometimes the wrong tags are assigned to elements in the document and sometimes the order in which content will be read gets assigned incorrectly, too.  Commonlook excels in fixing these issues.  Using CommonLook has been shown to dramatically reduce remediation time.  Furthermore, CommonLook PDF has functionality like the “Fix Wizard” built into the software to walk remediators through the steps to fix problems that are identified.  In addition, CommonLook will ask the remediator to manually verify the accessibility checkpoints that can’t be addressed through automation.  If errors are spotted, they’re easy to fix.  If there aren’t any problems, those manual verification items can be passed.  In the end, you’ll get a compliance guarantee that your document is accessible.  In addition, unlike Adobe Acrobat, when using CommonLook PDF GlobalAccess, you have the assurance that you’ve tested your document against and made it comply with the accessibility standards that you and your organization need, whether it’s Section 508 (US Federal Government), WCAG 2.0, or PDF/UA.

And, in the End

Minimize legal risks

We hope that this article has helped shed some light on the whole PDF “auto-tagging” debate.  Close – halfway up the ramp – is not close enough.  Everything can’t be done through automation.  And conforming to the recognized, and required, accessibility standards is the best way – the only way – for you to be sure that your end-users are getting the most out of your PDF documents and that your organization is minimizing its legal risk.