Learning Centers

Accessible PDF: A Strategic Review

April 22, 2004


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 accessibility.

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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