Why PDF Accessibility Is Important For Higher Education

This is a guest blog post contribution authored by Ashish Tiwari and Avery Hymel from the CommonLook team. CommonLook is a Monsido technology partner and their proprietary software powers the add-on PDF scanner that is an integrated part of the Monsido platform. 
Every student has an equal right to access higher education and training. Technology has a significant impact on how the higher education sector operates and provides education and training to students. This effect has become even more pronounced in the age of COVID-19, as all essential components of the country’s education system, including higher education, have embraced the online world.

Why Is Digital Accessibility Important to Colleges and Universities?

Millions of students access the websites of their colleges and universities every day to download study resources, make payments, submit papers and other essential documents, and interact with administrators, professors and fellow students. Thus, the educational institution’s website becomes a center for collecting and distributing information - it is the bridge that brings everyone together.

While digital tools and technologies certainly helped improve access to education during the pandemic, the situation for students with disabilities has, in some cases, become even more difficult than it was before the pandemic.

Examples of Digital Barriers For Students With Disabilities:

  • Videos that are not appropriately captioned or have no captions at all
  • Untagged PDF documents make it almost impossible for assistive technology tools such as screen readers to read them as intended by the authors
  • PDFs with no alternative text or description for images and other graphic elements contained within the document
  • Poor contrast between the text and background colors of the document

Why Should We Care About PDF Accessibility?

PDF documents comprise a large part of the study material and digital communication distributed through the websites of colleges, universities and other educational institutions. PDF is one of the most common document formats in educational institutions, government agencies and commercial organizations.

As its name implies, PDF - Portable Document Format - is exceptionally portable. It can be viewed and navigated in all major operating systems and almost all devices. For this reason, PDFs make up most of our digital documents, including forms, curriculums, guides, e-books, applications, invoices and bank statements.

When a PDF document is created without digital accessibility in mind, then people with vision impairment, hearing loss or cognitive disabilities may need special accommodations or tech (i.e., assistive technology) to read it the way it was intended.

Under the American Disabilities Act (ADA), documents hosted on a website or other digital medium that are not accessible to all expose organizations to accessibility-related lawsuits; this is especially true for government, healthcare, finance/banking and education.

Let’s say you work in the digital accessibility department of an educational organization. Your job is to make your organization’s website and content accessible to everyone, including students with disabilities.

After you carry out a thorough analysis of the website, you find that there are thousands upon thousands of inaccessible PDF documents stored on your website that need to be made accessible.

What would you do in that situation?

You would most likely turn to a PDF remediation service or software.

But you may find the process of PDF remediation overwhelming at the beginning, especially if you are a newbie in the field. Drawing from our experience remediating millions of PDF documents over the last two decades, we identified common pain points for PDF remediation, especially for higher education.

PDF Remediation Challenges

The education industry faces some tough but common challenges when it comes to accessibility. Properly crafted processes that prioritize document remediation and access for all can help universities get ahead of the issues and solve problems as they arise.

Throughout education, poorly scanned documents are one of the main offenders. Teachers or administrators frequently use scanned materials, which might be fine for their sighted audiences but are significant roadblocks for students who use assistive technologies.

While running OCR, or optical character recognition, is the first step toward making scanned documents accessible, most will require manual correction for content that doesn’t come through properly. OCR correction is an integral part of the workflow we employ and teach here at CommonLook and can be particularly helpful to the education industry.

In addition, documents containing complicated graphics, charts, tables, and more can be constants in the education world. These graphics are limiting whether it’s a food-chain flow-chart in an introductory ecology course or a complex molecular structure in upper-level chemistry. Students using assistive technology rely on Alternative text, captions, or accompanying footnotes to interpret the needed information.

CommonLook’s tools provide a richer experience for readers and more flexibility for authors who want to edit or add to existing PDFs. These solutions are a welcome resource for any educator who strives for standards-compliance in their classrooms and beyond.

How CommonLook Can Help

CommonLook, a leader in PDF accessibility, provides software and professional services to help organizations achieve compliance with document accessibility standards, including WCAG, PDF/UA and Section 508. We have a full range of document accessibility software, in addition to remediation services.

Our flagship solution – CommonLook PDF – is a powerful accessibility tool designed specifically to remediate and validate PDFs. Indeed, many accessibility professionals in Higher Ed use CommonLook PDF to remediate their PDFs in-house.

Another accessibility tool, CommonLook Office, simplifies the creation of accessible PDF documents directly from Microsoft Word and PowerPoint sources. It’s the perfect companion tool for authors who develop content using Microsoft Office.

To give back to higher education institutions during these challenging times to make PDF content more accessible to students with disabilities, CommonLook provides a free subscription to two of our best-selling PDF accessibility software solutions: CommonLook PDF and CommonLook Office.

This offer is available exclusively for colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. For details and registration, please visit CommonLook’s education promo page .