PDF In-Depth

Section 508 and PDF: The facts

July 07, 2010

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Editor's Note: Duff Johnson is the CEO of Appligent Document Solutions. This article originally appeared on Appligent.com, and has been reprinted with permission.

I've been asked again and again to explain the basic rules of the road for making PDF files accessible and compliant with Section 508.

Here are 10 key facts that anyone coming to grips with the problem needs to know. Want the really short version? There's no easy button, but with some planning and just a little know-how, your PDFs can be just as accessible as any web-page.

  1. PDFs can and must comply with Section 508 every bit as much as the HTML pages that link to them.
  2. Section 508 applies to both Federal government agencies and Federal contractors. State and local governments are also adopting similar measures.
  3. Section 508 compliance is most easily achieved when PDF documents are authored in an accessible fashion. Correction of poor or non-existent document structure after the author is "finished" radically increases the difficulty of achieving compliance.
  4. It is the author's job to provide alternate text for images.
  5. Section 508 is woefully incomplete. For example, Heading and List tags aren't required, but both are vital for effective navigation of complex or longer documents. Be sure to insist on these tags!
  6. Section 508 is silent regarding footnotes and endnotes, leading many users to tag this content based on where it appears on the page, not inline with the text.
  7. Adobe Acrobat's "Add Tags to Document" feature cannot ensure correct reading order, add alternate text to graphics or validate table structure, among other limitations. Learn more.
  8. Adobe Acrobat's Accessibility Checker cannot verify compliance with Section 508, since among other limitations, it is incapable of verifying correct reading order. Learn more
  9. Adobe Acrobat's Read Out Loud feature cannot be used to verify compliance with Section 508 since it cannot represent the document's logical structure (tags). Learn more
  10. Conventional PDF forms (acroforms) and some Designer/XFA forms can both comply with Section 508. However only conventional Acrobat forms can utilize existing document structures provided by external authoring applications, while XFA forms must be "static" to comply. Learn more
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