PDF Accessibility: What Is It, and Why Is It Important?

PDF Accessibility
Written by prodigitalweb

Accessibility is becoming an increasingly important issue that businesses must acknowledge.

As our global society becomes more switched on to social justice issues, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, the spotlight is firmly planted on organizations in anticipation that they do right by their customers.

However, many business owners make a fundamental error when implementing accessibility strategies by merely focusing on their physical locations, such as office buildings and customer-facing stores. As such, companies tend to neglect their obligations to ensure the accessibility of their online content, including websites, files, and other forms of digital media that operate in the public realm.

Breaking down web accessibility

Web accessibility is the umbrella term that covers all accessibility aspects belonging to digital content. In the US, online accessibility is typically governed and enforced by Title III of the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act). This civil rights law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The ADA states that all “places of public accommodation”(including websites and online content) must be accessible to all individuals, including those with disabilities.

So, how is a company’s level of web accessibility assessed? Well, that’s where the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) steps in, which is the universally accepted guidelines that offer recommendations for making web content accessible. The latest edition of the published guidelines, the WCAG 2.1, breaks down four principles used as testable success criteria when determining digital accessibility. These principles are perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness.

What is PDF accessibility?

PDF accessibility falls under the umbrella of file accessibility, which refers to the accessibility of online documents and how perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust they are. Usually, businesses that work towards WCAG compliance focus on their website and UX design without considering their documents. However, digital documents, such as PDFs, PowerPoint files, and Excel spreadsheets, are all renowned for their inaccessibility since they are often incompatible with assistive technologies such as screen-readers and keyboard navigation tools.

As a result, file accessibility is becoming an increasingly pressing issue, particularly for organizations that rely on digital files to provide services to customers, such as restaurants with PDF menus and hospitality enterprises with digital itineraries.

In fact, PDF accessibility has its own universal standard (similar to the WCAG) known as the PDF/UA (ISO14289-1:2014). The standard includes specifications for accessible PDF documents, which includes information on how companies can create PDF documents compatible with readers and assistive technologies that adhere to the standard.

For files to be considered accessible, images and icons must be textually described, interactive elements must be navigable by keyboards, forms fields must be tagged and labeled properly, and textual and table content should be properly structured.

Core features of accessible documents

With the legal aspect out of the way, let’s look at some core features of accessible documents and what you need to work towards if you want to stay in accordance with the law.

  • Established reading order – You must use a proper heading structure that is logical and easily understandable. The content must be in a semantic structure, so screen readers can easily comprehend and process the content.
  • Alt text on images – Blind and low vision people usually obtain information contained in images and other visual content through text-based descriptions called alt-text. This text should describe the contents of images to effectively communicate their meaning to readers.
  • Descriptive hyperlinks – Screen readers may read out hyperlinks one letter at a time, which can be frustrating for disabled users. With this in mind, accessible documents should include descriptive hyperlinks that include natural language. However, any hyperlinks added to the document must communicate clear and accurate information about the link destination.
  • Written in plain language – Simple and plain language is essential if you want to communicate effectively with your audience. Not only does this make content more compatible with screen readers, but it also ensures that those with learning disabilities can understand the core message behind the content.
  • Interactive elements should be compatible with keyboard navigation – Many individuals suffer from disabilities that make them unable to operate a mouse. In these instances, such people often use keyboard navigation as an alternative. In light of this, any interactive element on the file must be keyboard navigable.

What other files must be made accessible?

There are no limits on file types regarding web accessibility, since the ADA or WCAG do not distinguish between different types of web content. As a rule of thumb, if you are creating a file for public use, such as a document that will be sent to customers or clients, you must ensure it is accessible.

Here’s why it’s worth the effort

For many of you, the whole process of web accessibility and ensuring files are remediated per the WCAG 2.1 may seem a bit long-winded and unnecessary. However, there are a few reasons you may want to reconsider that stance. First, web accessibility lawsuits are rising year-on-year, with 2021 breaking the record for digital litigations. With the average lawsuit costing businesses a whopping $25,000, it’s important that you implement an accessibility strategy if you want to minimize being on the wrong end of such legal proceedings.

Secondly, according to the World Health Organization, there are more than one billion disabled people in the world, which correlates to around 15% of the global population. Thus, if you have important files and documents inaccessible to these people, you could be alienating a large portion of the consumer market from purchasing your products and engaging with your brand. Lastly, every business has an obligation to treat all its customers and employees fairly, regardless of their age, race, gender, or level of disability. Not just on a legal level, but simply because it is the right thing to do.


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