PDF accessibility

In this interview I chat with accessibility expert Ted Page about PDFs and ebooks, and the issues making life difficult for a wide range of readers.

Ted is director of PWS web editorial services: a company specialising in making PDFs and ebooks accessible and offering a range of PDF accessibility training courses.

Ted is a former member of the BBC's accessibility working group and the author of a PDF accessibility how-to guide for the BBC (part of the corporation's online Standards and Guidelines).

How are people with accessibility requirements excluded from using PDFs?

"With normal PDFs there are a number of accessibility issues that make it hard to read the document when using a device such as an e-reader. The critical issues are a lack of reading order, loss of structure and broken links."

"For example, anyone reading an unstructured document will find headings (a main navigation requirement) are not shown. This results in a long document consisting of only words. Without this sort of signposting, readers won't be able to navigate the document to find what they want."

"Also, the reading order of the document on a screen won't always be coherent; it won't be what you would see on a normal page. For example, page one could load right at the end, after page 50. So visually it looks fine but from an audio perspective it makes a complete mess of the content."

How is PWS making PDFs accessible?

"There are a number of things we do with PDFs to make sure they can be read as intended. For example each heading needs to be tagged as a H1, H2 and so on. This would apply to each paragraph, with P1 and so forth, whilst tables would be tagged with T1, T2. This helps to keep things in the right order."

"Tagging is the most important aspect of accessibility – in essence, it's the 'spinal cord' of the document. It's not difficult to do – it's more of a process and an appreciation of the benefits of applying this."

What are the main issues in creating accessible PDFs?

"The biggest issues are actually more about education and awareness than the creation itself. Lots of people think they know how to make a PDF accessible for a range of disabilities. But in fact, very few people do. There is also an awareness issue – many people are not even aware about accessible PDFs."

How is this moving towards ebooks?

"This is an interesting topic. Ten years ago it was very difficult to get an accessible PDF. Around five years ago, it started to come together. In the last few years, PDFs are beginning to become fully accessible, but only on a PC (it doesn't work with a Mac). With the arrival of mobiles and tablets – people are moving on from viewing content on PCs. Unfortunately PDFs are not accessible on tablets – it’s an investment that probably won't be made in the near future. I think in the future, ebooks will completely replace pdfs as the technology of choice as they become more accessible. Right now, though, you need both."

Do you have any simple tips for making accessible PDFs?

"One very important point I'd like to make is that it's much quicker and easier to make a PDF accessible if it’s done whilst creating the document, rather than at the end of the process. It's something you have to build into the blocks of what you do."

"Another thing that I think would raise standards dramatically would be if all organisations were to periodically have a document or two tested by real users of assistive technologies (such as screen readers). I think they would receive highly valuable feedback on the benefits of making PDFs accessible. It would also force up standards amongst those providing PDF accessibility services."

This is a great step in making PDFs accessible and available to a wider audience. However, the world isn't perfect. What issues are still out there?

"The main barrier is attitudes. It's all about getting people to change their habits – alter the way they write these documents. Once they learn how to do this, it will actually make accessibility so much easier to achieve."

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