Why Accessible PDFs Make Sense

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Did you know that accessible Portable Document Formats (PDFs) make sense in more ways than one? They make sense to assistive technology devices and they make sense in an all-inclusive business strategy. But what does that really mean?

Work meeting with a woman pointing to a laptop screen with Braille Works blog "Why Accessible PDFs Make Sense"

Imagine you need to download and read a document from a website. (Hard to imagine; I know. But, bear with me…) The download goes smoothly, the file is in the correct folder, it opens with ease, and you’re ready to read the information you’ve worked so hard to get. (Where’s the “sarcastic font” when you need it?) But, you can’t make sense of the PDF you’ve downloaded. It starts with a paragraph that’s clearly mid-thought. Then there’s text on top of a graphic but the colors are so similar you can’t decipher what it’s trying to say. Headings, paragraphs, tables, and other important information you can’t read is randomly strewn throughout the document. How are you supposed to make sense of this jumbled mess? And, why on earth would a company have this on their website for their customers to download?

This is essentially what happens when someone with a visual, neurological or cognitive disability tries to read a PDF with assistive technology that isn’t accessible. As a customer, why would you give this company any more of your time? As a business or organization, why would you treat your customers this way? Chances are, you wouldn’t want to in either scenario.

Why PDFs Make Sense

Assistive Technology

Many people with disabilities rely on assistive technologies, like screen readers, to help them process printed information. This technology allows people to hear the information in a logical reading order, tab through to the desired section, and more.

And, it’s not just people with disabilities who rely on this technology. Many people take advantage of the assistive technology “text-to-speech” feature on their phones, computers, and other devices every day. Apple’s Siri reads your text messages, Amazon’s Alexa reads the news headlines, and Microsoft’s Cortana reads your emails. Also, business professionals and students alike utilize assistive technology to help them multitask. They’re able to open a PDF, have the screen reader read the content to them, and do something else while absorbing that information. It’s helpful all around!

Making your PDFs accessible allows all of these people to enjoy your material with ease.

All-Inclusive Business Practice

As a business or organization, you probably want to reach as many people as possible. And part of that reach includes considering what will attract people to you. You make sure everything is aesthetically pleasing, your message is on-brand, and incorporate ways to increase customer satisfaction.

You also probably think your organization takes steps to make sure you include people with disabilities and provide them with equal access to goods and services. Your business likely follows the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by removing barriers and providing some accessible communication. However, the requirements go far beyond wide aisles, accessible bathrooms, braille doors markers, and ramps. Providing accessible PDF, braille, large print, and audio versions of your printed material are also basic requirements of ADA. In today’s digital world, your organization is out of compliance if websites and attachments, like PDFs, aren’t accessible.

Despite your best efforts to be inclusive, if one door is shut to people with disabilities, a legal judgment could force it open. This can create a number of expenses and cause damage to your branding.

Incorporating accessible PDFs into your all-inclusive business strategy just makes sense.

How PDFs Make SenseAdobe Acrobat icon with "PDF/A/UA" text and a circled check mark showing it's an accessible PDF

Accessible PDFs allow assistive technologies to relay information in a logical order.

Did you know that PDFs are comprised of layers? People without visual disabilities—who can read standard print—see the top, or “content,” layer. And, because this visual layer reads in a logical order, many people assume that’s good enough. But, assistive technologies don’t read that layer. They go deeper into the document to get information. That layer needs to be formatted correctly for the content to be read in a logical order.

Also, just creating a PDF isn’t enough. PDF layers are different depending on the method in which they’re created. (Who knew?) Different versions of different programs put different information in the PDFs layers. For example, if you “Save As…” a PDF in Microsoft Word 2007, you’ll get a different result than in Word 2013. The layers are also created differently if you “Save As…,” “Print,” or use an Adobe plug-in to create your PDF.

So, how does one make an accessible PDF?

Making PDFs Make Sense

The process of making a PDF accessible can be confusing and time-consuming. And, it’s important to get it right the first time so you’re not excluding customers. So, how do you make sure your PDFs are accessible? There are a few options.

You could use an automated tool. Chances are they’ll come up in your “accessible PDF” Google search. We don’t recommend this option because there isn’t a tool advanced enough to create truly accessible PDFs. And, we’re not the only ones who don’t recommend this approach. Section508.gov says, “The PDF must be visually verified to identify issues that cannot be detected by the automated testing tool.” So, if that’s not the way to go, what is?

You could internally hire someone to make your PDFs compliant. You’d need to find someone who knows what they’re doing, has a good track record, and provides great references. If you’re going to take the time to onboard someone to your company for this task, make sure they’re the real deal.

Finally, you could work with a Document Accessibility Partner. This is the most reliable and cost-effective method. You get access to a team of people dedicated to making sure your PDFs meet every accessibility requirement. And, chances are they’ll offer other accessible document options for you, too. A Document Accessibility Partner is a one-stop-shop for all of your accessible document needs. It’s convenient, saves time, and gives you peace of mind knowing your files are correct.

Accessible PDFs For the Win

It’s time to include everyone! Don’t leave your customers with disabilities in the dark. Invite them in with accessible PDFs, electronic communications, documents, and websites. You’ll be glad you did.

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This post was written by Jessica Sanders

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