Don’t Forget the Documents - Why Accessible Web Content is More Than just HTML

Why you need a strategy to ensure that your PDF documents are as accessible as the rest of your website.

Today, our guest blogger is David Herr, Vice President of Marketing & Strategic Alliances for CommonLook – an organization laser-focused on PDF accessibility.
When it comes to website accessibility, the focus is usually on the HTML content and rightly so. If your website is not searchable or if it cannot be navigated and explored using assistive technology (like a screen reader), then your other content really does not matter.

But once the HTML code is accessible, there are other content sources that need consideration. Websites usually have content stored as PDF files that typically are not fully compliant. If you don't make your PDFs accessible, you expose yourself to legal liability.

PDF is the most widely used document format and continues to grow in volume each year. And with almost 15% of the world's population living with some form of disability, you cannot assume that your website is accessible to everyone. When someone visits your website and navigates the site using a screen reader or other assistive technology, what happens when they open an untagged PDF document?

PDF documents and forms are a common requirement for doing business, such as job applications and benefit requests. When someone cannot access this information, it prevents them from reading the content and creates a legal liability for your organization.

Because PDFs are the predominant format for digital documents, they must be just as accessible as your web pages. The good news is that PDF documents can be made fully accessible and be 100% in compliance with accessibility standards, including WCAG 2.0 AA, WCAG 2.1 AA, Section 508, HHS and PDF/UA.

How to Evaluate Your PDF Compliance Risk

Find and list all documents on your domain

Before you can address the problem, you need to know the depth of the problem. Taking an inventory of the electronic document content on your website is the first step. Tools like Monsido discover and identify accessibility risks in discovered documents.

The inventory list will help you determine the location of the files that fail the scan. Since automated testing will only discover a fraction of the potential issues, please do not rely on automated testing alone, though they are a good indicator of the problem's depth. PDF files need to have tags assigned, as that is how a screen reader “reads” a PDF. If the files are not tagged, they are, by default, not accessible. Automated testing on tagged files will identify additional issues that need to be resolved to ensure the files are compliant.

Prioritize your documents by importance

Organizations may have hundreds or even thousands of files on their website. Once you have the inventory, delete files that are no longer needed. Sort the remaining files by order of importance and make the critical files accessible first. For example, this year's budget files are essential, but budget files going back eight or more years can probably be removed.

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Common PDF Accessibility Issues

What are the issues that make PDF documents inaccessible? Here are the top things that prevent PDF accessibility:

  • Untagged PDFs - the most significant issue. Tags identify the content type and the content attributes, including navigation descriptions (heading levels, paragraphs, tables, lists and images). Most untagged PDFs will not work with assistive technology.
  • Improper Tag Structure. Adding tags to a document using Adobe Acrobat does not automatically make a PDF accessible. Tags need to be verified to identify the page elements correctly and ensure that the reading order is correct. Most documents require substantial work after adding tags to reach 100% standards-compliance.
  • Missing Alternative Text. Images need to have alternative text (Alt-text) descriptions for assistive technology. Alt-text describes the image and its purpose.
  • No Bookmarks. Bookmarks aid in navigation and should match the headings used in the document.
  • Image-Only PDFs (scanned documents). Many documents are scanned and digitized as images. Scanned documents are basically one big picture and are inaccessible by nature. Scanned PDFs are made accessible by running OCR, tagging the document and then remediating it for accessibility.
  • Undefined Table Headers. Tables need to be correctly tagged to work with screen readers so that they can be navigated and read in the right order and to identify header and data cells in each column. A properly tagged table can be fully accessible.
  • No (or incomplete) Metadata. PDF Metadata provides more information about a document. So, you need a descriptive title beyond the file name (which often is meaningless). Author, subject and keywords also help to make the document more useful and accessible.

You can learn more about what makes a PDF accessible on the CommonLook website.

Six Steps to ADA Compliance

You can place your organization on the path to ADA Compliance by doing the following:
  1. Start a web accessibility program. Ensure accessibility standards by defining clear and achievable success criteria. Develop a formal accessibility policy and publish it on your website.
  2. Consider changing existing policy to share the burden of creating accessible content from the CIO/webmasters to the "content creators," while maintaining central control over overall compliance.
  3. Allocate appropriate resources to document accessibility, including budget allocations for accessibility coordinators, software tools, training and remediation.
  4. Consider whether to do the work in-house or to outsource. If outsourcing, be sure to work with reputable vendors who understand PDF accessibility complexities and who will stand behind their work.
  5. Many organizations have focused their accessibility efforts on HTML/CSS content. Remember to also focus on your PDFs – they are often a significant cause of accessibility non-compliance.
  6. Identify, research, and utilize verification and remediation tools when available.

Ensuring all your website content is accessible is just good business. Everyone benefits from a more inclusive website. So when launching programs to validate your website's overall accessibility, don't forget to include the documents!
About the author
David Herr is the Vice President of Marketing & Strategic Alliances and he is responsible for the overall marketing strategy, developing strategic partners and growing CommonLook's channel program.

David has been in the technology field for over 35 years in various technical and strategic roles for both technology vendors and large and small enterprises. In his free time, he enjoys traveling with his wife and family and collecting interesting automobiles.