Accessibility key on keyboard (alphaspirit/Shutterstock.com)

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Document accessibility software automates remediation and increases compliance

Visual impairment or “legal blindness” affects a sizable 4.2 million Americans. That number is expected to double by 2029, when the youngest baby boomers turn 65. As more Americans require assistive technology to access government information -- tax documents, benefits and other important documents -- government agencies must meet rising demand to serve this population, improve user experience and avoid legal action for failing to comply with accessibility requirements.

In this two-part series, we’ll explore how document accessibility software allows governments to make any document, delivered via any channel, accessible to those who are blind or partially sighted. This first article will focus on the process of making transactional documents -- such as tax bills, account notices and payment confirmations -- accessible. We will wrap up the series with a look at static documents -- those items often housed on a website like tax codes, building codes, rate sheets, and forms -- as well as where document accessibility technology is headed in the future.

Given how many Americans depend on assistive technology to access important information, providing accessible documents is unquestionably the right thing to do. For many government agencies, it’s also the law. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires all government entities and contractors that receive federal funding to comply with its provisions and provide documents to constituents in a form they can utilize. For individuals who are blind or partially sighted, accessible formats may include PDF or HTML5, braille, large print, e-text and audio files.

While most government agencies already comply with these requirements, the Department of Justice has stepped up prosecutions against non-compliant organizations. In addition, private litigation for discrimination is on the rise. Costs of non-compliance include legal expenses, fines and loss of federal funding; some courts provide timelines for compliance that can increase these costs. Given the high price of non-compliance, government agencies have good reason to voluntarily adopt measures before the DOJ or a constituent takes them to court.

Non-compliance can be expensive, but using manual processes to tag and reformat documents for accessibility is also time-consuming and labor-intensive, making compliance a monumental challenge for agencies that lack the budget or personnel to manage thousands of documents, some of which run to hundreds of pages. Adopting accessibility software and automating processes can increase compliance by dramatically reducing the amount of time and effort it takes to convert and remediate documents.

So, what exactly is this technology and how does it work? When we talk about document accessibility solutions, we are referring to software that converts documents into media that can be consumed by individuals who are blind, partially sighted or have cognitive impairments. The process starts with a template and set of business rules that create an accessible version of the original document. For PDF and HTML documents, this involves tagging the content for identification by assistive technology. The next step is to properly define elements such as headings, list elements, table and landing page links. Agencies must also correctly set the reading order so that it makes sense to the reader and add alternate text to graphics so that people with visual impairments can understand the images others see. Another important step is to mark as “artifacts” any elements not needed by the recipient, so they will be ignored by assistive technology.

Worried about security? Document accessibility solutions are no more vulnerable to attack than other software. Typically, the accessibility software runs behind the firewall and is a part of either the document creation process or in the portal that serves up the documents to users.

However, the real benefits of document accessibility software become apparent when considering the amount of time it takes -- days or even weeks -- to remediate documents manually. Government agencies that fail to provide accessible documents in a timely manner can be sued for discrimination, so these delays can be particularly costly. Furthermore, manual remediation itself can be expensive, ranging from $5 to $30 per page, depending on the complexity of the document. Factoring in the high cost of non-compliance, the expense of manual remediation and the time it takes to do it, adopting document accessibility software is well worth the investment.

Although this technology has significant advantages over manual remediation, agencies must still build templates for each type of document, which can take anywhere from several hours to several weeks. They may also experience a very slight increase in the time it takes to process documents (approximately 50-100 milliseconds per document). In most cases, this increase can be mitigated by remediating documents simultaneously with other standard document assembly processes. Where concurrent processing isn’t possible, batch processing that occurs offline can minimize disruptions to the workflow.

When selecting document accessibility software, agencies should look for a solution with a graphical user interface that is optimized to create business rules for converting documents into accessible formats. The software should provide automation capabilities to simplify complex field identification and table layout and trigger business rules. It should also allow users to create rules for adding alternate text and setting the reading order.

With demand for accessible documents expected to double within this decade, government agencies can meet the needs of constituents and avoid costly penalties by voluntarily remediating their documents. Adopting document accessibility software that automates the process can greatly reduce the amount of time it takes to remediate documents. More importantly, making documents accessible is the right thing to do for millions of Americans who rely on this information to manage their affairs and live independent lives.

About the Author

Ernie Crawford is president/CEO and founder of Crawford Technologies.

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