Seeing the Value in Accessible PDFs, by Shannon Kelly

(Editor’s Note: Shannon Kelly is a global accessibility solutions subject matter expert at Actuate Corporation (NASDAQ: BIRT), The BIRT Company™ and the market leader in personalized analytics and insights.)
Of all the organizations that provide us with products and services, which ones are truly addressing the challenge of accessibility? Chances are, they are doing a fine job in terms of their physical facilities, internal hiring policies and maybe even their web pages. It’s a lot less certain, though, that their web content is as good and, in some cases, as legally compliant as it should be.
For the visually impaired, especially those who use assistive technology software such as screen readers that allow them to read and consume digital information, how compatible with that technology are web-delivered PDF documents like bank statements, utility bills, tax notices or medical information from their insurance company? In the United States, unfortunately, it can be a roll of the dice.
Why is this the case? In addition to our own personal experiences, there’s also no end, unfortunately, to newspaper headlines about aggrieved customers who have felt so ignored or improperly treated in this regard that they have sought legal redress.  (1)
A big target for these lawsuits is the financial services sector, but many industries are facing challenges around accessibility, especially in North America, Canada, the UK and Australia, though other parts of the world are not that far behind. In the U.S. we have a set of either existing or imminent legislation mandating access for all sorts of people, but increasingly those with visual impairments, to ensure access to digital information. Interestingly, most existing legislation was created long before our digital explosion, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, (2) yet the litigious efforts forcing accessibility compliance on these companies continue to reign triumphant for the visually impaired.  Why is this? Partly due to a public statement by the Department of Justice interpreting public accommodations to include web sites, even though currently the ADA doesn’t identify that; consider the recent and controversial ruling by the DOJ on H&R Block. (3) The new proposed amendment to the ADA, expected in March 2015, will be an accessibility eye-opener for those who haven’t already addressed their digital communications.

Exceptions Have Stopped Being the Rule

How did organizations deal with this problem up until now? There’s a concept of an exception process requiring the customer to identify his/her disability, and only those who request an accessible statement would get one — but they have to wait for one to be generated for them. But in today’s digital, always-on age, companies can no longer simply ask customers to wait for a special copy. These customers need information at the same time as everyone else, and it can often be expensive or even medically risky to ask them to wait. Welcome to the era of true, 24/7 content democracy.
Most organizations produce what specialists call ad hoc web site content, producing PDFs, the de facto standard form for documents, at the desktop level that are visually readable across whatever platform folks need to consume them from.

Accessibility At Scale

Today, most companies will be working to dovetail that kind of PDF content creation closely with accessibility standards. But say you have a bank, or a government agency, or a telecommunications company. How will these organizations make sure all of their e-delivered customer statements, invoices, and communications will be accessible in their PDF versions? Are they going to have someone go through each statement manually, remediating it to the correct accessibility guidelines?
That might be an acceptable approach if they were sending out 30, 300, or 3,000 such statements in PDF form. But what about 100,000? Or a million? Or more?  The fact is that it is simply not possible to ensure these one to one, web-delivered customer communication examples meet accessibility requirements at that scale.
All these organizations will need specific technology help to stand any chance of automating that process — that is, unless they can spare $5 to $35 per page to get it done manually by contractors. And remember, this is a process to be repeated each month: these are tasks that companies have to do that they probably can’t do manually.
What should institutions think about in addressing these issues? First, they need to apply a tagging structure at the sub-layer level to every PDF. Next, make certain the tag structure meets accessibility compliance standards and is tested to ensure compatibility with screen readers allowing the visually impaired access, navigation, and usability of the document.
Until now, it simply hasn’t been possible for organizations to create accessible PDFs for these documents generated at the enterprise level. The good news is new innovative software is now available that effectively automates this process, satisfying the legal requirement to provide accessible electronic content, and replacing expensive, manual PDF tagging with a scalable, affordable, automated solution that can make all high-volume PDFs accessible.

Compliant – But Also Helpful and Supportive

Put simply, what is needed is the ability to create, at the enterprise level, intelligent templates containing accessibility rules that get incorporated into the data or documents that flow through it, automatically generating fully accessible PDFs (4) in the millions, or more as needed. Of course it must be a cost-effective solution for the mass output of documents.
PDFs are, after all, the ideal way to deliver content to everyone. But to make that a reality for all, institutions need to spend conscious effort to get that process done accessibly.  If they don’t, not only could they face legal risk, but they miss the opportunity to provide a satisfying user experience for every customer, no matter their ability.


[1] Just a few of the many cases can be found via links like or
(2) You may find this site relevant
(4) The standards as set by