Word doesn't do Section 508, PDF gets the blame

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Duff Johnson picture

Duff Johnson

Since 2011, Duff has worked in the ECM industry specializing in PDF technology since 1995. An industry leader, Duff co-chairs the international committee that manages ISO 32000, the specification for the PDF file format. Responsible for marketing and product...  More



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

So, you think PDF is a problem when it comes to accessibility and Section 508 compliance? Let's talk about that expensive and widely used word-processing software known as Microsoft Word.

Word appears unaware of Section 508 requirements for tables. In Word, column heading cells occur only when an option to repeat headings on following pages is selected. There's no way in Word to create row headings, no way to manage multilevel headings and no way to set the scope of heading cells.

Microsoft may be unaware that Word is unaware of these requirements, since in their VPAT for Word 2007 Microsoft claims -- erroneously -- that Word supports paragraphs (g) and (h) of the Section 508 regulations which require, among other things, row headings in tables.

So why expect that a PDF made from Word will do any better?

Logical structure information has to come from somewhere. PDF has no inherent concept of words, sentences, lines or paragraphs for a variety of extremely good reasons we'll discuss some other time.

PDF can include mechanisms that allow the document's logical structure to be represented in addition to the contents. When a Word file is converted to PDF using capable software and the correct settings, structure information from the source is conveyed into the resulting PDF file.

However, to the extent that the authoring application is itself unaware of accessibility requirements, the newly-created PDF is less likely to be accessible as-created, and must be corrected after-the-fact.

Screen-shot of table tags represented in a grid.

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