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PDF accessibility is good for everyone

How often do we create a great piece of print, everyone loves it, it looks great, it tells you all you need to know, it’s an all-round slap on the back for a job well done, then suddenly someone remembers “Hey we need this on our website…” but heck that’s not a problem, we can make a PDF, it’ll look just as great as the printed document, in fact it was a PDF the printers used so it’ll be identical… Great, let’s get on with that back-slapping… but wait, has anyone tried using the PDFs read aloud? does the document make sense then? Is it reading heading and body copy in the right order? well it’s most likely you haven’t, it doesn’t and no. So what are we going to do now then?

accessibility

So let’s have some facts… According to the 2011 census 18% of the UK population has some form of disability, that’s nearly 10 million people. Not all of these people have obvious disabilities and only 17% are born with their disability, the majority become disabled during their working life. There are many other fact about disabilities such as the stronger prevalence as you get older. In fact many of us will probably acquire some form of disability of some sort in our lifetime, be it hearing loss or some form of visual impairment – both forms of disability most of us don’t even consider disabilities but are just facts of ageing.

The Government passed the Equality Act in 2010 defining a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities” and the Act reinforced the law to protect against many forms of discrimination across society including disability. Put simply it means that a disabled person should be able to gain access to the same extent as an able-bodied person be it entry to a building, a job or even access to information.

Nowadays we don’t think twice about buildings having ramps or lifts to help give better access, we’d probably be more surprised if a place didn’t have provision. What we don’t always think about is people’s ability to get access to information. In this modern world of the worldwide web we think that getting hold of information is easy, but that isn’t necessarily so, luckily organisations such as W3C do have set standards for creating websites that mean people with disabilities can get the maximum benefit from a website. Not everyone is following them, but many are and governments are starting to make large organisations do it by law. This is all excellent news but quite often in our industry we produce printed literature that our client wants represented on their website. Sometimes all the information is already on their site as a fully accessible webpage, but on other occasions we are asked to make a PDF for them to put on the site and that becomes the only way of accessing that information online.

PDFs are fantastic, you can do so much with them, but they can be hellish for text-reading software, what looks like an obvious reading order to a normally sighted person doesn’t necessarily translate to a piece of software that can’t tell the difference between the text at 36pt and the 12pt body copy unless the PDF is tagged. So what’s tagging? well is the non-sexy, techie part of working with PDFs, essentially it’s a method of telling screen readers what it’s reading and therefore how to read it. I’ll be honest – it’s laborious, boring and at times soul-destroying to do, but it’s essential to someone with a visual impairment. Without that effort you might just as well give them a blank piece of paper and tell them to get on with it.

So is tagging a PDF the be-all and end-all? Well, the reality is no it isn’t, design plays an important part as not all disabilities require the use of screen readers. For example dyslexics struggle with columns of text and partially sighted people can read on screen if the font sizes are large enough without having to zoom in too much. It can be a compromise, you have to judge who’s reading the PDF? do you try and make the printed document easy to make accessible as a PDF? or do you make a specific file that’s easier to tag? Generally this would be a plainer, simpler document.

So what do we do? Well most of the PDFs we produce aren’t accessible, and that can be because they don’t need to be, the information is already available in an accessible format, or because the client isn’t aware or willing to produce one. But we’re slowly changing that, we’re informing our clients about these issues early in our process so it isn’t a last-minute afterthought. That doesn’t mean we compromise our design, if anything it makes us think harder about what we produce and how we produce it. In all honesty we’re fairly new to this level of accessibility, we’ve done what we consider accessible PDFs for several years, but full tagging is a new skill.

We’re learning more every day and we’re not always spot on first time but it’s something that draws you in, makes you a bit evangelical. A few years ago if you had asked me to make an accessible PDF, I’d curse you, now I think why wouldn’t you do it? it’s the right thing to do.

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