COVID raises the stakes for digitally accessible documents

Agencies that have made their websites and apps understandable to screen readers should be sure their PDFs also comply with accessibility standards.

COVID-19 has changed how we do just about everything, from banking to shopping to schooling to working -- even personal communications.  One silver lining is the increased attention to the importance of digital channels, as well as the accessibility of those channels. That’s because an estimated 26% of the U.S. population has some form of disability – vision, hearing, cognitive or limited motor mobility.

Many organizations have made progress updating their websites and apps to be digitally accessible to people with disabilities. The same can’t be said, however, for other forms of electronic content such as PDFs, which are increasingly used by services like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local governments to convey vital information and updates to the general public.

One relevant example: Our audit from late October revealed that 43 states’ PDF-based applications for mail-in voting had critical challenges to accessibility. This meant that across the country, many with disabilities -- who, by virtue of their conditions, tend to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 -- were likely thwarted in their first attempt to apply for mail-in voting for the 2020 presidential election.

The ubiquitous PDF offers many benefits as a communications vehicle. The format is easy to view and share, tends to have a small file size, works on any operating system and integrates non-text elements like images easily.  However, PDFs face many of the same accessibility challenges as HTML web pages. Luckily, there are numerous fixes for the most common accessibility roadblocks:

Missing alt text

Images usually add to a visitor's contextual experience; however, they can be highly problematic for blind and low-vision persons who rely on screen readers -- user-side software that reads a page’s text aloud and helps users navigate around the page. When a photo lacks a meaningful alternate text -- known as alt text -- the screen reader may read out "image623.jpg" or another equally unhelpful file name. Even more descriptive alt text like "increase in Massachusetts COVID-19 cases" fails to detail the results of the chart for someone who cannot see the graphic. Either situation can be frustrating to those who are blind or have vision impairments, but such scenarios are unfortunately very common.

The use of clear, easy to understand alt text is straightforward. In cases where images convey information, alt text must go beyond describing what an image is and actually describe its content or purpose. For example, effective alt text for a chart image would be "chart showing 3% increase in Massachusetts COVID-19 cases in January." As a guideline, if the alt text does not make it easy to understand what an image is conveying, it is not clear and simple enough.

Improper headings

A well-structured PDF, including proper heading tags (not just large text) enhances accessibility for all.  Headings provide structure and function as an outline for a document. A PDF without headings is like a textbook without a table of contents, chapters and page numbers. Users who lose their place would have to re-read page the entire file to find where they left off.

This is what many people with disabilities encounter when attempting to navigate electronic documents using screen readers. Documents devoid of headings force a screen-reader user to listen to the contents from top to bottom to understand it. With properly formatted headings, a screen-reader users can skim through headings and subheadings to quickly determine what content in a document is relevant. Headings should be numbered in a way that represents increasing degrees of “indentation,” enabling those using screen readers to easily conceptualize the outline of the document.

Improper semantic mark-up for forms and lists

Lists can be a useful way to organize information. When a screen reader comes to a properly marked up list within a document, it will notify the user to the list and say how many items are in it as a way to orient the information. This is a better approach than a “fake” list that has been styled to look like a list by using the line break element. When the screen reader comes upon this type of content, it will not announce that it’s a list. This practice may be acceptable for short lists, but it would be confusing for screen-reader users coming upon a very long list without knowing what to expect.

Additionally, when agency content creators build a PDF form, they should listen to how a screen reader interprets it. If it sounds odd, the form structure likely needs changed. Screen readers and/or keyboard-only users will have problems if forms do not contain clearly labeled form fields and buttons. All elements of a form such as instructions, cues, required fields and field formatting requirements should be clearly identified. The order of elements should be logical and accessible, which is especially essential for assistive technologies that navigate by using the tab key to jump to the next element.

Besides these key points, there are easy ways agencies can ensure their PDFs are more accessible. First, whenever possible, content reviews should be done in Microsoft Office, because Office 365 and Office 2016 have built-in accessibility checkers.  When using PDFs as a final form, agencies should convert these files directly from these authoring sources.  Adobe Acrobat features a wizard which can get about 25% of the way to an accessible document.

Digitally accessible documents like PDFs are just as important as accessible web pages.  It is vital that content creators are educated and organizations place an equal emphasis on the content contained within a site and that disseminated via electronic means. Even the most accessible websites may be of little help if their most critical documents are not assistive technology-friendly, which is why all content creators should be educated in accessibility basics.

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