August 2, 2017

Accessible Documents – Different Approaches for Different Types of Communications

stack of papers on top of charts

We all deal with a myriad of document types – books and manuals, marketing materials, signs, packages, invoices, statements and other communications too numerous to mention. This is equally true for individuals who are unable to read conventional print because of a visual or cognitive disability. So, how should you handle graphics and tables? What are your options for making personal and confidential information accessible?

Although there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to document accessibility, there are some common issues to consider when tagging Accessible PDF and Accessible HTML5 files.

One of the first challenges you’re likely to run into when tagging is what to do about graphics. Every graphical element must either be tagged with alternative text or artifacted. Alt text is critical because it provides a brief description of the image so that a screen reader user has access to the same information provided to the sighted reader. Document authors and designers often include photos and other images strictly for visual effect. When this is the case it is acceptable – but not mandatory – to artifact the image. So when is it okay to artifact an image instead of applying alt text?

Let’s say you have an annual report that has to be made accessible, and it contains a pie chart showing the percentage of the budget that was spent on various activities. Alt text is required in this case because the pie chart is an image. Screen readers (text-to-speech software) are not able to extract text from within an image. However, the report may also contain photos of people or places connected with the organization and these can either be tagged with alt text or artifacted because they don’t contain information that is needed in order to understand the content of the report. If nothing is done to the image the screen reader will say things like “Graphic” or “Graphic 274”, which obviously doesn’t convey much in the way of useful information.

Making decisions about visual content in static documents is fairly straightforward but transactional material presents a unique challenge because the content is variable and the remediation process is automated. The marketing messages in these files often contain images that are intended to illustrate but don’t actually provide necessary information. Alt text can’t be hard-coded in because the images are variable, so the best approach is to artifact the graphic and let the marketing message speak for itself.

Tables are the next major issue that you’ll deal with when tagging files for accessibility.

It’s really important to tag the table data correctly because correct association between data and column headers will allow the end user to figure out how all of the information in the table fits together. This is especially true for tables containing several rows and columns, such as transactional details on a credit card statement. If row 23, column 6 contains a dollar amount and the table is properly tagged, the end user doesn’t have to scroll to the top to find out whether the figure is last month’s closing balance or a late payment fee.

What else should you consider? Again, this will depend on the type of document you’re dealing with. Statements and bills contain personal and confidential information, but often include a lot of marketing messages as well. Whether you have a disability or not, the first thing you want to know when you open a bill is how much you owe and when you have to pay it, so you’ll want to bear this in mind when making decisions about read order. Finally, remember that screen reader users navigate documents by elements such as headings, lists and tables, so the structure of your document can have a huge impact on how efficient it is to access using assistive technology.

As with other aspects of accessibility, the best approach is to factor it in at the design stage. This ensures an efficient remediation process and documents that are truly accessible.