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PDF Remediation: Ensuring Accessibility for All

Contents

Diagram of various accessibility characteristics for the vision impairedIn today’s digital age, it’s crucial that information is accessible to everyone, regardless of their abilities. PDF remediation is the process of making PDF documents accessible to people with disabilities, ensuring they can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the content. By remediating PDFs, organizations can reach a wider audience, demonstrate their commitment to inclusivity, and comply with legal requirements.

Understanding PDF Accessibility

As a general rule, an accessible PDF will often contain some of the following characteristics:

  • Searchable text that can be read by assistive technologies, such as screen readers
  • Fonts that allow characters to be extracted as text
  • Document structure tags and a logical reading order
  • Alternative text descriptions for non-text elements like images and graphs
  • Interactive form fields when using fillable forms that are properly labeled and tagged
  • A specified document language and descriptive title

To create accessible PDFs, it’s important to understand the relevant accessibility standards. The most common being:

  1. WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)
  2. PDF/UA (PDF Universal Accessibility)
  3. HHS (Health and Human Services)

These standards provide guidelines and technical requirements for creating accessible digital content, including PDFs.

Understanding PDF Accessibility

As a general rule, an accessible PDF will often contain some of the following characteristics:

  • Searchable text that can be read by assistive technologies, such as screen readers
  • Fonts that allow characters to be extracted as text
  • Document structure tags and a logical reading order
  • Alternative text descriptions for non-text elements like images and graphs
  • Interactive form fields when using fillable forms that are properly labeled and tagged
  • A specified document language and descriptive title

To create accessible PDFs, it’s important to understand the relevant accessibility standards. The most common being:

  1. WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)
  2. PDF/UA (PDF Universal Accessibility)
  3. HHS (Health and Human Services)

These standards provide guidelines and technical requirements for creating accessible digital content, including PDFs.

The Importance of PDF Remediation

Close-up hands of person with blindness disability using braille terminalThere are several compelling reasons to prioritize PDF remediation:

  1. Reaching a Wider Audience: Accessible PDFs can be used by people who are blind or partially sighted and/or web users with disabilities, expanding your potential audience.
  2. Enhancing User Experience: Accessible PDFs are easy to navigate and understand for users of assistive technologies such as screen readers. This is possible due to the accessibility tags such as alternative text descriptions.
  3. Social Responsibility: Creating accessible content demonstrates a commitment to inclusivity and equal access to information.
  4. Legal Compliance: Many countries have laws that require electronic documents to be accessible, such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States.

Common PDF Accessibility Issues

To effectively remediate PDFs, it’s important to understand common accessibility barriers:

Issue

Description

Issue

Lack of tags

Description

Without tags to define the document structure and reading order, assistive technologies can’t provide users the ability to properly navigate the content.

Issue

Missing alternative text

Description

Images and other non-text elements require alternative text descriptions to be understood by users with visual impairments.

Issue

Improper reading order

Description

If the reading order doesn’t match the logical order of the content, it can be confusing and disorienting for users with assistive technologies.

Issue

Inaccessible form fields

Description

When using fillable forms, form fields must be properly labeled and keyboard-accessible to be usable by all individuals.

Issue

Inaccessible tables

Description

Tables must have properly defined row and column headers to be understood by users with assistive technologies.

By identifying and addressing these issues, you can significantly improve the accessibility of your PDFs.

PDF Remediation Techniques

There are two main approaches to remediating PDFs: at composition, or authoring, and post-composition remediation.

At Composition

Tagging is the process of adding structural elements to a document to define its reading order and logical hierarchy. Tags identify elements like headings, paragraphs, lists, tables, and images, making it easier for assistive technologies to navigate and understand the content.

In many cases, the best route for generating a document in an accessible format can be considered at the composition or authoring level. However, this is easier said than done as it requires the authors to be fully versed and familiar with document accessibility. This means knowing what standards they need to follow, such as WCAG, PDF/UA and/or HHS (Health and Human Services). Not only does it require knowledge, but it requires being almost an expert so that when they generate the final PDF, this PDF is not only accessible, but also usable, which leads to full compliance. This takes time, and if people who are creating documents are not generating accessible PDFs all the time, it could take them a very long time to generate a PDF every time they generate one as they might need to keep brushing up on their document accessibility knowledge. Therefore, although in some cases this can work and users might be able to generate accessible PDFs all the time, there will be many cases where this will not be possible for all authors, or to do it at the document composition level.

To do this as the document composition level, users will need to not only be very, very familiar with document accessibility and all the details that go with it, but they will also need to be very, very familiar with the application they are using to create their document and how this application works with accessibility tagging. As they go along with creating the document, they will also be creating the accessibility tags that go with it.

There are tools and software that can assist them in the accessibility process, but this is still a process with which they will need to be very familiar.

To tag a PDF:

  1. Open the document in a tool like Adobe Acrobat Pro.
  2. Use the Tags panel to add and edit tags for each content element.
  3. Ensure the tag structure follows a logical reading order.
  4. Provide alternative text for images and other non-text elements using the <Alt> tag.
  5. For tables, define row and column headers using the <TH> tag.

Post-Composition Remediation

Close-up Of A Busineswoman's Hand Working With Invoice On Digital TabletPost-composition remediation involves tagging a fully composed PDF document. This approach is often used for high-volume, transactional documents like bank statements or invoices, where tagging during the authoring stage isn’t feasible.

Important key requirements in remediation:

  1. Perform OCR: If the PDF is a scanned image, use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to convert it to searchable text.
  2. Tag the Document: Add corresponding tags such as headings, paragraphs, lists, tables, figures, and more to define the document accessibility elements and reading order.
  3. Provide Alternative Text: Add alternative text descriptions for images and other non-text elements.
  4. Reading Order: Ensure the reading order of all the accessibility elements follows a logical sequence.
  5. Define Form Fields: When using fillable forms, properly label and tag form fields to make them accessible to assistive technologies.
  6. Properly Tag Tables: Ensure tables have properly defined row and column headers, proper cell associations, table description and are tagged correctly.
  7. Specify the Document Language: Set the primary language of the document in the PDF’s properties.

Several software tools are available for post-composition remediation, including CrawfordTech’s AccessibilityNow® suite of solutions. For high-volume documents, automated remediation solutions can significantly streamline the process.

Checking and Remediating PDFs for Accessibility

​Even if you’ve followed best practices for creating accessible PDFs, it’s important to check your documents for accessibility issues and remediate any problems you find.

Basic Accessibility Checks

Man using laptop to complete digital checkbox list overlay conceptStart with some basic checks to identify obvious issues:

  • Use a PDF accessibility checker such as PAC (PDF Accessibility Checker) to determine if the PDF is accessible or not.
  • Use the Accessibility Checker in Adobe Acrobat Pro to identify common accessibility issues.

Advanced Accessibility Testing

For a more thorough evaluation, consider the following manual testing techniques:

  • Screen reader testing: Use a screen reader like NVDA or VoiceOver to navigate the PDF and check for issues.
  • Keyboard navigation testing: Try navigating the PDF using only a keyboard to ensure all content and functionality is accessible.
  • Checking reading order and structure: Review the tag structure and reading order to ensure it matches the visual order of the content.

Remediating Inaccessible PDFs

Common remediation tasks include:

  • Adding Tags. PDFs use tags to identify the structure and order of content for screen readers. If the PDF isn’t tagged, adding tags is crucial.
  • Document Language. Specifying the document language ensures screen readers use the correct pronunciation and translation.
  • Headings Structure. Proper heading structure (H1, H2 etc.) helps screen readers navigate the document and understand its organization.
  • Tables and Lists. Ensure tables have proper structure (header rows, data cells) and lists are tagged correctly for navigation by assistive technology.
  • Alternative Text for Images (Alt Text). All non-decorative images need clear and concise alt text describing their content.
  • Color Contrast. Ensure adequate color contrast between text and background for better readability, especially for people with visual impairments.
  • Reading Order. Ensure the reading order follows the logical flow of the document for screen readers.
  • Bookmarks. Adding bookmarks to large documents allows users to jump to specific sections within the PDF.
  • Links. Descriptive link text should be used instead of just URLs for better understanding.
  • Verification and Testing. Use accessibility checkers and screen reader simulations to test the remediated PDF and identify any remaining issues.

Automating PDF Remediation

For organizations dealing with high-volume transactional documents, manual remediation is not a good option as it would take much too long and documents would never be delivered on time. In these cases, automated remediation solutions can help streamline the process. These solutions typically involve:

  1. Template Creation: A template is created for each type of document, defining the structure, tags, and other accessibility features that should be applied.
  2. Batch Processing: The automated tool processes a large batch of PDFs, applying the appropriate template to each one and generating accessible versions of the documents.
  3. On Demand Remediation: remediating documents on demand is the most efficient, cost effective and delivers documents on time.
  4. Quality Assurance: The remediated PDFs are checked for accuracy and compliance with accessibility standards, either through automated checks or manual review.

Automated remediation can significantly reduce the time and effort required to make high-volume PDFs accessible while ensuring a high level of quality and compliance.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a tagged and an untagged PDF?

A tagged PDF has a logical structure defined by accessibility tags, which are in the metadata and invisible to the naked eye. To the average user, a tagged PDF will look identical to an untagged PDF, as the tagging is done in the metadata and does not affect or change the structure of the PDF itself. Tags describe the hierarchy and meaning of the content. An untagged PDF lacks this structure, making it difficult or impossible for users of assistive technologies to navigate and understand the content.

Can I make a scanned PDF accessible?

Yes, but it requires an extra step. You’ll need to use OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to convert the scanned image to searchable text and then the tags and other accessibility features are added to the PDF.

How do I check if my PDF is accessible?

There are several ways to check the accessibility of a PDF:

  • Use a free tool like PAC (PDF Accessibility Checker) 3
  • Use the Accessibility Checker in Adobe Acrobat Pro
  • Use an accessibility checker like CrawfordTech’s Validator tool
  • Test the PDF with a screen reader like NVDA or VoiceOver
  • If you are very familiar with document accessibility, check the tag structure and reading order manually

What are the most common accessibility issues in PDFs?

Some of the most common accessibility issues in PDFs include:

  • Lack of tags or incorrect tagging structure
  • Missing or incorrect alternative text for images
  • Missing document language definition
  • Insufficient color contrast
  • Inaccessible form fields in fillable forms
  • Improperly tagged tables

How long does it take to remediate an inaccessible PDF?

The time required to remediate an inaccessible PDF can vary widely depending on the complexity of the document, the severity of the accessibility issues and user knowledge of document accessibility. For someone with document accessibility skills, a simple document with minor issues may only take a few minutes to fix, while a complex document with many issues could take several hours or even days.

How can I make high-volume transactional PDFs accessible?

For high-volume transactional documents, automated remediation solutions can help streamline the process. These solutions typically involve creating templates for each type of document, remediating on demand, or batch processing a large number of PDFs, and performing quality assurance checks on the remediated documents.

Crawford Technologies – Your Partner In PDF Remediation

PDF remediation is essential for ensuring that digital content is accessible to everyone, regardless of their abilities. By understanding the principles of PDF accessibility, following best practices for tagging and remediation, and using the right tools and techniques, organizations can create PDFs that comply with accessibility standards and are usable by all.

Mature woman supports man with visually impairment in using computer at libraryAs you work to make your PDFs accessible, remember that accessibility is an ongoing process. Prioritize accessibility from the start, test your documents regularly, and make accessibility a core part of your document creation workflow. By doing so, you can ensure that all users can access and benefit from your content.

Crawford Technologies offers a powerful solution for streamlining the process of remediating PDFs for accessibility: AccessibilityNow® Remediate. This innovative desktop tool provides users with a user-friendly graphical user interface (GUI) that simplifies the process of tagging non-transactional PDF documents. With AccessibilityNow Remediate, users can quickly and easily tag various elements within a PDF, including reading order, paragraphs, headings, lists, URLs, and tables. By incorporating advanced AI and machine learning technologies, this tool can automatically sense tagging elements, significantly reducing the need for manual PDF remediation efforts and extensive quality assurance processes.

As a standalone tool, AccessibilityNow Remediate can be seamlessly integrated into any organization’s PDF remediation workflow for non-transactional documents. It can be used independently or as a final step in the remediation process for files that have already been tagged using Crawford Technologies’ publishing applications. By leveraging the capabilities of AccessibilityNow Remediate, organizations can dramatically reduce the time, effort, and costs associated with making their PDF documents accessible. This powerful tool ensures compliance with key accessibility standards, such as PDF/UA, WCAG, and HHS, enabling organizations to create inclusive and user-friendly digital content for all users, regardless of their abilities.

Need help ensuring your PDFs are fully accessible? Contact Crawford Technologies for expert assistance in creating and remediating PDFs to meet the highest accessibility standards.

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