Access ability

GCN Lab Review | CommonLook eases the process of making '508-compliant PDFs

CommonLook 3.0 Section 508 for Adobe Acrobat

Performance: B+

Ease of use: B

Features: A-

Value: A

Government price: $999 per seat

Reviewer's comments:

Pros: Helps automate the tedious process of testing for Section 508 accessibility compliance.

Cons: Only works with Adobe Acrobat.


NetCentric Technologies

(877) 226-0877

Government agencies give people easy access to thousands of official documents via their Web sites. Yet for many citizens with disabilities, some of those documents and Web sites might as well be in secret code.

In 1998, Congress amended Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to mandate that all electronic government documents be accessible to federal employees and members of the public with disabilities.

CommonLook Section 508 for Adobe Acrobat from NetCentric Technologies can make complying with that regulation a little easier by performing the potentially daunting task of converting PDF documents into files that comply with Section 508's accessibility requirements. CommonLook also greatly automates the testing and validation process for ensuring that documents are 508-compliant.

In Version 3.0 of CommonLook, NetCentric has made some valuable enhancements over the software's predecessor, Version 2.3 ' including a new feature called Merged Views, which does a good job of streamlining PDF conversions.

Many people with disabilities rely on software that reads aloud the content on their computer screens. But screen readers can falter when they encounter Web pages and PDF files because they don't know the order in which to read the content. Information is rarely presented in a strict top-to-bottom sequence on the Web. As with magazines, there are headlines, sidebars, tables and illustrations interspersed throughout the text.

Checkpoint tags

Section 508 requires that all content ' including information on the Web or in PDF files ' use specified checkpoints to ensure that it is accessible to those with disabilities. For example, illustrations must be tagged with text that offers screen readers an explanation of the image. Other tags tell screen readers the sequence in which text should be read.

There are 14 checkpoints for PDF content. As a result, such documents are constructed with three separate views. The physical view is what users typically see when they display or print a document. The content order view is for displaying the files on handheld devices and in Adobe's reflow tool. Screen readers use the tagged view to generate audio output.

The views are separate from one another. A document can be printed one way, reflowed in another way, and seen or read by screen readers in a different way altogether.

The first step in processing a document for Section 508 compliance is to add accessibility tags. You can insert basic tags automatically using the tag-generation utility in Acrobat. Once a document has tags, CommonLook will start testing for compliance one checkpoint at a time. If there are areas of noncompliance, it will generate a report. Otherwise, the user can publish the document.

For my tests, I used a standard Internal Revenue Service document. Although it looked fine in the physical view, it didn't fare well when I switched to the content order view, which shows how the document would be displayed on a handheld device. The text and other elements were out of order, so Acrobat clearly hadn't succeeded in interpreting the structure of the document.

Acrobat's built-in screen reader, Read Out Loud, relies on the content order view, so listening to the document being read aloud was confusing. To remedy the problem, I first had to fix the content order view, then, the tagged view. Fortunately, CommonLook now has Merged Views, which automatically synchronizes the content order and tagged views.

Another improvement in Version 3.0 is its ability to more easily tag previously untaggable items ' for example, those in containers or annotations. CommonLook now detects and automatically tags them for you.

Acrobat sometimes tags items as tables that are not tables, such as forms that have headers, necessitating a time-consuming process of moving the text outside the table. CommonLook's linearized table function addresses the problem by copying the contents of each cell, then tagging them as paragraphs and placing the contents in the same linear order as in the form.

After modifying and repairing a tagged PDF, using CommonLook to run through the checkpoints and generate reports is a straightforward process. Although not completely automated, CommonLook's approach is more comprehensive than, say, using Adobe Acrobat.

Victor R. Garza is a technology/security consultant and lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He can be reached at

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