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pdf accessibility
Gurpreet Singh Arora
Gurpreet Singh Arora Updated on Feb 16, 2024  |  5 Min Read

Gone are the days when accessibility was limited to the physical infrastructure—when emergency response plans, braille elevator buttons, and wheelchair ramps accommodated everyone, especially people with cognitive, sensory, and physical disabilities.

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As we expand our horizons, the same applies to the digital infrastructure where ensuring website and document accessibility is equally important. The majority of businesses today need some kind of online component to operate successfully.

For instance, you might be a state park with information about hours of operation or a restaurant with downloadable menus. Thanks to IoT, the World Wide Web, and whatnot, people order groceries, search for a new car, and even book babysitters online. Thus, along with this big wave of digitization comes the need to set standards for accessibility.

Legal Framework: Section 508 Accessibility and Compliance

One of the foremost legal standards regarding digital accessibility is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the United States. This law mandates that federal agencies’ electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. Adhering to Section 508 compliance means ensuring that all users, regardless of ability, can access, navigate, and understand the information contained within digital documents.

A website, ensuring accessibility might look like a site reader or the ability to disengage any flashing media that could provoke a seizure. While it is easy for stakeholders to wrap their heads around website accessibility, many are still unsure of the documents. You’ve heard it right! Businesses are usually surrounded up to ears by documents, whether PDFs, Word documents, Excel sheets, or PowerPoint presentations—all these have to meet accessibility standards so that the variously abled communities can access the information in them.

The Imperative of PDF Accessibility

PDF or Portable Document Format files have become ubiquitous in business communications, educational materials, government documents, and more. However, these files are frequently created without considering the needs of users with disabilities.

For instance, a blind user will find it difficult to access the generalized PDFs and will require a screen reader. Other communities that need help to navigate or access documents include hard of hearing, deaf, low vision, cognitive impairments, and more.

The World Health Organization estimates that over a billion people, or around 16% of the global population, live with some form of disability. Hence, addressing PDF accessibility is not just a matter of compliance but an ethical and moral obligation to make information universally accessible.

Creating accessible PDFs offers numerous advantages that cater to a diverse audience, including people with disabilities. Listed below are some of these:

  • Fostering Inclusivity and Compliance

    Making PDFs accessible ensures that individuals with disabilities such as visual impairments or mobility issues can access the information. This enhances inclusivity and aligns with legal requirements like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States, Section 508, or the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). By adhering to these standards, organizations avoid potential legal issues and reach a wider audience, including those using assistive technologies such as screen readers or alternative input devices.

  • Improved User Experience Irrespective of the (Dis)Abilities

    Accessible PDFs provide a better user experience for everyone. They are structured to be navigable, enabling quick access to content. Proper tagging, headings, alternative text for images, and logical reading order make the document more understandable for all users, not just those with disabilities. The use of accessible elements ensures that the document remains usable across various devices and screen sizes.

  • Boosted Search Engine Optimization

    Accessible PDFs often rank higher in search engines. Search engines like Google increasingly prioritize accessible content. Properly tagged and structured PDFs can be indexed more accurately, leading to better search engine visibility and improved discoverability of the content. This benefits not only users with disabilities but also anyone seeking information online.

  • Building a Positive Brand Reputation

    Accessibility measures demonstrate a commitment to social responsibility and inclusivity, which can positively impact a company’s reputation. Organizations that go the extra mile to ensure accessibility are seen as more ethical, responsive, and considerate, potentially attracting a larger customer base and fostering positive relationships with users and clients.

    If the friends and families of the disabled population find your products helpful, they are going to stay loyal to your business; acting as word-of-mouth evangelists for you. Besides, the more people can interact with your business, the better.

  • Cost Savings and Efficiency

    As everyone deserves equal access to information, documents are no exception. Designing documents to be accessible from the outset reduces the need for later modifications. Professional PDF accessibility services can help during the initial development phase, which is more cost-effective than retrofitting them for accessibility later. Moreover, it saves time and effort, especially in environments where a high volume of documents is produced regularly. Accessibility streamlines workflows, making documents easier to update and maintain.

Guide to PDF Accessibility

Accessibility in PDFs involves making the content perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for all users, regardless of their disabilities. Here’s how:

  • Document Structure

    Logical Order – Ensure a logical reading order by using proper heading styles (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.) and hierarchical structure.

    Tags and Metadata – Use correct tags (Title, Author, Headings, etc.) and provide appropriate metadata to help screen readers identify and navigate the document.

  • Text Elements

    Font and Text Size – Use easily readable fonts and a minimum font size of 12pt. Avoid using decorative fonts for body text.

    Color and Contrast – Use high contrast between text and background colors for better readability.

    Alt Text – For images, charts, and graphs, add descriptive alternative text to provide context to users who cannot see the visuals.

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  • Hyperlinks and Navigation

    Descriptive Links – Use descriptive hyperlink text instead of “click here” or URL links.

    Bookmarks and Navigation Pane – Create bookmarks for easy navigation through the document structure.

  • Tables and Data

    Headers and Summaries – Clearly define table headers and provide summaries for complex tables.

    Proper Table Structure – Use proper table elements (header cells, row, and column scopes) to help assistive technology understand the table layout.

  • Document Testing

    Screen Reader Testing – Test the document using a screen reader to ensure proper reading order, navigation, and content comprehension.

    Keyboard Accessibility – Ensure the document is navigable using only a keyboard.

  • PDF Compliance Standards

    PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility) – Aim to comply with the PDF/UA standard to ensure universal accessibility.

    WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) – Align the PDF’s accessibility with WCAG guidelines, especially for digital content.

  • Best Practices

    Use of Text Instead of Images – Whenever possible, use text instead of images of text to enhance readability and searchability.

    Language Specification – Specify the document’s primary language to assist screen readers in proper pronunciation and understanding.

    Content Redundancy – Ensure that the content is not conveyed through a single sensory channel (e.g., use text captions for audio).

    Bottom Line

    The significance of ensuring accessibility in documents cannot be neglected in a world that is increasingly reliant on digital information exchange. Beyond legal obligations, it represents an organization’s commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and social responsibility. They improve the usability, reach, and searchability of content, foster a positive brand image, and potentially save costs in the long run.

    Prioritizing accessibility from the outset not only benefits individuals with disabilities but also enhances the experience for all users, contributing to a more inclusive and efficient digital environment. At the same time, creating accessible PDFs requires attention to detail, the use of proper tools, and a commitment to inclusivity.

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