accessible pdf

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Taking the pain out of creating accessible PDFs

As agency content managers know, the final rule of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act covering information and communication technology has passed. Yet how many of publicly available documents still aren’t 508 compliant?

Agency content creators -- those who create brochures, forms, annual budget reports, even online course content – may not know how to ensure their content is accessible.  And many accessibility specialists spend hours upon hours making documents accessible.

For most organizations, current methods of ensuring 508-compliant accessibility come up short. One of the biggest reasons for the failure is the cost and difficulty of ensuring new and existing documents are 508 compliant. Fortunately, there are solutions that can streamline the process.

PDF software can reduce, or even eliminate, manual remediation

Manual remediation involves going through a document page by page, even line by line, to apply the correct style to each paragraph, phrase, word or character. It can also mean manual tagging, which is critically important for making documents accessible.

Tagging a document applies back-end structural labels to each part of a page or form so that assistive technology software can logically present content such as chapters, headings and paragraphs as well as elements like figures, tables and footnotes.

There is good news -- the PDF solves many document accessibility challenges, even tagging, by streamlining or eliminating the need to make documents accessible manually. And there are many ways to turn even the most antiquated legacy documents into PDF.

PDF software can make legacy documents searchable, editable and even accessible

Most agencies have countless legacy documents. Some may already be PDFs but lack source documents, so they require review. Some may be scanned documents, which are essentially unsearchable images. They can be converted into PDF by most PDF software, though not all products include optical character recognition (OCR) tools to render them editable, searchable or accessible. Some may be in formats so old, it's unclear whether they can be updated.

Fortunately, over 400 file types can be converted to PDF, including legacy formats like Corel Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3. The challenge is that, while myriad authoring tools offer "Convert," "Save As" or "Export to PDF" functionality, not all do a good job of adding tags.

What’s more, properly navigating through more complex documents often requires more sophisticated screen readers than the standard “read out loud” text-to-speech tool that’s built into PDF software products. Read out loud is designed to start, pause or continue reading pages from top to bottom, whereas users may need more advanced features that can navigate to different parts of a document or read cells in a table. That’s where proper tagging is an absolute must.

Auto-tagging speeds accessibility compliance, but there’s a catch

Some PDF software products provide auto-tagging features alongside manual remediation. The difference lies in the quality of the tagging they do. Auto-tagging can range from minimal to highly accurate, which translates into staff time spent on manual repair vs. only doing minimal touch-ups.

In addition, many auto-tagging tools cannot correctly recognize how a document should be read or identify decorative page elements such as borders, lines or background images. Simply deleting these tags from the structure will be flagged by the accessibility checker, so manual touch-up is required to tag them as artifacts.

Also, images must be tagged with appropriate alt-text to convey information the way the author intended.  Although adding the appropriate alt-text will always be a manual process, the quality of a good auto-tagging engine can make a world of difference in effort, time and cost.

Finding the right PDF software for effectively automating accessibility

The best way to take the pain out of creating accessible PDFs is to look for mature vendors that have a sophisticated OCR engine that leverages advanced imaging techniques to maximize text recognition accuracy. Make sure the software also generates proper PDF tags for screen readers to reduce most of the tedious work of identifying and tagging documents manually.

Once documents are tagged properly, use a high-quality PDF editor that can provide all the final touches such as adding alt-text to images to ensure full 508 validation and compliance. In this way, agencies can achieve their goal to provide fully accessible documents to the public while minimizing the painful manual labor required to do so.

About the Author

DeeDee Kato is senior marketing director at Foxit Software.

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