Adam Spencer on the Accessibility of PDFs and Electronic Documents

There’s a reason that people gravitate towards certain document types, such as PDF and Microsoft Word. For the majority of society, they are the most convenient file types. They are quick to produce, easy to print from, and simple to upload to websites or other platforms. However, the PDF or Word document in its most basic form aren’t quite as accessible as we think. This lack of accessibility is what has caused some backlash against these file types in recent years. They often are not AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) or ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant, which means they can be difficult to read for people with disabilities, such as those who are hearing or visually impaired. While this is certainly a valid argument, it fails to take into account the fact that online documents, including PDFs and Word documents, can easily be made to be accessible.

Adam Spencer of Oakville, Ontario, is the President (GLOBAL) of AbleDocs, a Canadian company, with offices around the world, that is committed to making documents on the internet more accessible for people with disabilities. More specifically, the company has come up with industry leading software to check the accessibility of online documents to ensure they meet the standards set by the ADA for all electronic and information technology. Mr. Spencer provides a few reasons as to why PDFs can be as accessible as any other format, if we know how to use them properly.

Woman sitting with an open Apple laptop in her lap.
Adam Spencer from Oakville, Ontario, on PDFs and Electronic Documents

PDF Accessibility

Although Adobe is one of the most well-known PDF leaders, Adobe does not own PDF, it is an open ISO specification. That said, Adobe’s products offer a number of accessibility features in both Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Reader that make it much easier for people with a range of disabilities to read PDF documents. Such accessibility features, when properly used, are compatible with all kinds of assistive technology and software, including speech recognition software, text-to-speech software, screen readers, screen magnifiers, alternative input devices, Braille embossers, and refreshable Braille displays.

In order to make a PDF accessible, it comes down to a semantic markup, known simply as tagging. Tagging must be used in every PDF document to make clear the correct reading order of the content. By tagging, ALT-Text and replacement text can also be provided. Adam Spencer notes that there are a variety of other characteristics that must be included for a PDF to be considered accessible. For example, accessible PDFs must have searchable text, embedded fonts that allow characters to be reflowed and extracted to text, interactive labeled form fields, document language and title indication, security features that will not interfere with assistive technology, as well as the aforementioned document structure tags and ALT-Text descriptions for non-text elements, such as images. There are also a few choices that users can take when creating a PDF that will instantly make them more accessible, shares Adam Spencer. These choices include not using flashing or blinking elements, using text rather than images as much as possible, and not using colour or other sensory characteristics to convey meaning or to provide contrast.

All of these characteristics can be employed when creating a PDF and using the latest software that is focused on accessibility. There isn’t an “easy button” that automatically creates fully accessible content without understanding how to properly create your content. This is identical to how accessible HTML is created, just in a different format. After the user has completed all of the functions to create an accessible file, to verify they haven’t missed anything and that the document conforms to accessibility standards, its critical to use applications like the PDF Accessibility Checker (v3.0 or beyond). The check will clearly tell the user if they have “passed” or “failed” on each item. Finally, the user will receive a report on the accessibility status of their document, which will contain links to tools to help them fix any items they may have failed. Ultimately, AbleDocs has done a lot of work in recent years to make their documents as accessible and inclusive as possible. Thus, according to Adam Spencer, this newfound commitment to AODA/ADA compliance by governments and businesses far from marks the “death of the PDF.” When you consider that there are over 2 billion PDFs loaded to the internet each year.

Final Thoughts from Adam Spencer

Overall, making content more accessible is a win-win for everyone. Certainly, for people with disabilities, but even for others who use PDF documents on a daily basis. Adam Spencer wholeheartedly believes that making documents accessible is the way of the future, but he believes that you don’t need to eliminate an entire document type (the PDF) in order to do so. Through his Oakville, Ontario-based company AbleDocs, Spencer is going to continue working hard to make documents of all kinds, including PDFs, as accessible and inclusive as possible.