Accessible PDF: A Strategic Review

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the Accessible PDF Learning Center

Accessibility: Why is it important to Adobe Systems?

Government demands it. Schools need it. Users want it. But when it
comes to making electronic documents friendly to assistive
technology, the great strengths of the PDF format are also its
weakness. The very flexibility of PDF and the tremendous power of
Acrobat make real accessibility (also known as ‘usability’) so very,
very hard to accomplish.

The accessibility issue represents the most serious strategic
vulnerability for PDF at this time. Right now, HTML, DAISY books, RTF
or (shudder) even Word files stand a better chance of becoming
definitive as ‘accessible’ document formats! Adobe’s current strategy
is top-down, and imposes substantial financial and technical burdens
on content authors. It’s time to look at a bottom-up approach.
Accessibility should be built-in, not added on.

The Problem

Adobe’s current approach to accessibility is to make tags available
within the latest-generation PDF specification. Using these tags,
design professionals may provide alt. text layouts and coding that
can deliver a viable experience for assistive technology users –
theoretically. While text documents may, at significant expense and
trouble, work well with tags, the reality is that only the very
simplest forms are really usable with tags alone. While the fact that
tags are technically capable of rendering document text to a screen
reader may formally qualify PDFs for Section 508 compliance, that
point should not be confused with the question of functional

Content authors are rarely familiar with the requirements of
successful accessibility publishing, and have little reason to learn.
Not only are they unlikely to receive any technical or functional
training on the subject, but in the vast majority of cases, content
authors won’t even get an expensive screen-reader with which to
sample (dare we add, test) their creations. As a result, their PDF
files will be, as always, built to print, with meaningful
accessibility a distant secondary or tertiary consideration.

In any event, the issue of tags is near-moot because as PDF creation
software proliferates, professional content authors using Adobe
products and educated on accessibility issues will generate only a
modest fraction of PDF documents. If tags are required to facilitate
accessibility, then PDF has literally no chance of becoming known as
accessible. Maybe Reader could auto-tag on the fly? Please. It would
be a major miracle if 20 percent of all documents could be meaningfully
auto-tagged on opening. Effective tags are born of many conscious choices, they are not a default event. The inevitable result of a tags-only strategy is
simply that content authors will ignore the issue entirely, choose a
different format, or simply ‘dumb-down’ their documents. In all such
cases, PDF loses.

Government & Accessibility

National, state and local governments, as well as non-US governments,
increasingly require their public document authors not only to work
within accessibility standards such as Section 508 – but be seen to
do so. As they expand electronic document usage and web enablement
for their line-of- business processes, governments will increasingly
favour solutions that include accessibility as a core competency.
Section 508, which has given Adobe the sweats, is actually a pretty
easy standard. The Canadian government specification (WCAG priority
2) is much tougher!

Education & Accessibility

To fulfill their mandate to serve the broad population, and to do so
on ever tighter budgets, state educational systems need assistive
technology for electronic documents now. Actually, they needed it
yesterday. Learning Disabled (LD) users represent at least 50 percent of the
assistive technology marketplace. There are tens of thousands of LD
students in the California Community College system alone. For these
users, PDF files are usable only via expensive, dysfunctional
non-Adobe software typically maintained in school and college
computer labs.

As a practical matter, the legal vehicle for educational distribution
of accessible copyrighted documents is the Chaffee Amendment, (17 USC
? 121). However, the current suite of native Acrobat security
features makes PDF unattractive to publishers as a ‘specialized
format’ per the terms of this Amendment. This misstep is easily
corrected with the addition of a single security setting – another
opportunity to highlight Adobe’s commitment to accessibility, and a
boon to all publishers that ever wanted to sell a book into the
education marketplace.

California’s AB 422, passed in 1999, increased the pressure on
textbook and other publishers by requiring them to provide electronic
versions of their publications for disabled users to California’s
state and community college systems. Three years after this law was
passed, public education institutions are still scanning books and
converting the images to KESI format for use with the expensive
Kurzweil Reader when they could be simply distributing PDF files
provided by the publisher and saving everyone a lot of time, money
and trouble.

Accessibility for the Masses

By developing text-to-speech (TTS) as a core function within the
Acrobat product family, Adobe could actually begin to meet the needs
of the vast majority of the assistive technology marketplace without
the structural inadequacies and enforced brain-damage of the
tags-only approach. Advanced TTS implementation in Acrobat could:

  • Revolutionize accessibility to any PDF file via a simple
    click-to-speak metaphor

  • Integrate seamlessly with annotations, scripts or tagged PDF, and
    at a low level with Acrobat controls to provide full-spectrum
    accessibility and high-order usability

  • Deliver screen-reader integration and available advanced functions
    (on-board dictionary and special security privileges to support
    annotations, etc.)

Since annotation functions are important to Learning Disabled users,
the addition of viable assistive technology to Acrobat enhances the
likelihood that LD users will access educational resources in order
to become licensees of ‘full version’ Acrobat to gain access to
annotation capabilities. Adobe can make a real difference to 70 percent of
assistive technology users and simultaneously accomplish a lot more
than just protect their government marketplace. PDF isn’t just some
random format, you know! It’s got clout!


Blind users represent the greatest technical challenge for electronic document accessibility. This user population keeps the assistive technology vendors honest, because the blind understand usability in a way that one can only imagine by turning off the monitor and still trying to work. But that should not mean that resolving the needs of the blind is the only reasonable goal in promoting document accessibility.

In attempting to address the needs of the blind, whose tireless work
produced Section 508 in the first place, Adobe aimed their solution
at a strictly legal interpretation of the code, which fundamentally misses the
point for blind and non-blind alike. It is this: Ultimately,
usability is the point at which accessibility claims are sorted from
accessibility facts.

Only the narrowest of interpretations would conclude that Section 508
defines accessibility as making all the text on the page available to
assistive technology. If Adobe persists in the tags-only strategy,
organizations needing to improve their accessibility profile will
tend to opt for cost- effective usability (HTML) over expensive
uncertainty (PDF). Adobe cannot afford that.

Accessibility solely via the tags paradigm was a misstep in the right
direction. That ‘progress’ means little in the current or foreseeable
accessibility marketplace. The perception will remain that PDF is not
particularly accessible because into the foreseeable future, only a
small percentage of PDF files will include usable tags. To achieve
both short-term success and protect long-term viability, Adobe should
seriously consider the Accessibility for the Masses strategy for
version 6.1.

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About the Author: Duff Johnson

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