I was pleased to be invited onto an expert panel as part of Canberra Accessibility Week run by AccessibilityOz. The panel looked at PDFs and accessibility and included Danny Thomas (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations), and Adam Atkinson (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs).

What is website accessibility?

Here’s a useful explanation that Adam spruiked, produced to help staff understand why accessibility is relevant for everyone.

Do you have the right web content?

This is the first question to consider when thinking about accessibility and content. The right web content has these features:

  • It is useful – relevant and meaningful
  • It is useable – it’s in a form that you can access easily and manipulate as required
  • It is discoverable – you can find it easily and you can re-find it when you need to
  • It makes business sense – it meets organisational objectives and its affordable.

So why do people like PDFs in the first place?

PDF has certain appeals to business content owners, particularly if they are part of a big organisation.

  • It makes it easier for their manager to see they have delivered an outcome. A PDF has got a start and a finish and is easier  to hold in your hand (and mind) that a series of web pages).
  • They don’t feel any responsibility for ongoing updates. A PDF is like a publication – it is released at a point in time and there isn’t the expectation that it will be kept up to date.
  • PDFs give people a ‘false’ sense of security – they think they can’t be tampered with. (In fact it’s much easier to tamper with a PDF than it is with a webpage.)
  • PDFs gives business content owners control of formatting and design. They can create what they like and often avoid any need to confirm with website corporate standards.

So what’s the problem with PDFs?

There are a currently a range of issues in making PDF content accessibility. These have been well documented by Gian Wild in posts such  as PDF test results by assistive technology and Between a rock and a PDF.

So what are organisations doing about their PDFs?

To be accessible, your content has to be in a form that can be accessed by all users, including those people who may use assistive technologies.

The panel members discussed two main approaches to making PDFs accessible:

  • Replacing all PDFs with web content. See our interview with the Department of Primary Industries: Case study: Unlock valuable content trapped in PDFs
  • Providing a Word version to complement any PDFs. No-one was publishing RTF versions (that were once popular) because they offer no semantic mark-up.
The current issues panel members faced were:
  • Often the only version available was the PDF. It usually took time and multiple request to track down the original Word document and publish that.
  • No-one was actively tagging PDFs due to a lack of resources and time

  • Recent posts