As a format, is PDF “sufficiently accessible”?

From time to time one still hears this assertion:

“While PDF is a useful medium for some situations; when it is used, there must be a more accessible alternative provided in order for the information to be available to people with disabilities.”

Those who feel this way believe PDF as a format is insufficiently accessible to many people with low vision, dyslexia, and related conditions that impact reading. Since current-generation Adobe Reader and other PDF viewers lack sufficient text customization functionality (see TAdER for an in-depth study of customization requirements), they argue, the answer is to require that alternatives to PDF be provided to meet the needs of such users.

I respect this view, but requiring an alternative format is a fundamentally mistaken response to the problem.

While PDF is certainly overused, it remains, for many reasons, the de facto format for hardcopy documents. That’s the reality with which accessibility activists must engage. Ensuring equal access to the same content is – or ought to be – their focus. Times have changed. There’s no technical barrier to full accessibility in PDF any more than there is in HTML.

Today, the statement is much more useful if it is re-written as follows:

“While electronic hardcopy using PDF technology is required in many situations, the creation, editing or reading software must conform to PDF/UA in order for the actual document and the information it contains to be available to the greatest possible number of people with disabilities.”

Conversion of well-tagged PDF files to plain HTML, for example, is already freely available, and more tools are emerging all the time.

It’s important to give developers reasons to invest in accessibility tools. It’s critical to avoid foreclosing on the potential for investment by proclaiming that alternatives to PDF “must” somehow be provided. That statement has the direct and specific effect of squashing the incentive to develop new and better software.

PDF can’t be wished away; there’s a unquestionable need for hardcopy electronic documents. Instead, the banks, utilities, government agencies, businesses and graphic designers who generate electronic documents need to hear their customers demanding high-quality accessible PDF. The building-block software libraries are available today – it’s simply a question of getting end-user software vendors to prioritize support for accessible PDF.

Advocacy for electronic content accessibility should focus on highlighting the lack of technical barriers to full access to PDF, including the fact of a technical international standard (PDF/UA) to ensure everyone’s working from the same page.

PDF that conforms with PDF/UA-1 (ISO 14289-1) is accessible, period.

Whether a PDF/UA conforming file is accessibility-supported for a specific case is another matter – a question for the viewing software implementer, but assuredly not in question with respect to the file format itself.

For more information on text customization for readability, please visit the excellent TAdER website. I strongly recommend that interactive viewer implementers – regardless of format – review these substantive and detailed recommendations for UI controls in readers.


One comment

  1. February 14, 2014 at 13:16

    With respect to your definitions, lets take it to the next level: accessibility isn’t just for disabled people, accessibility applies to everyone and everything: is the data accessible to you and what you are doing with your the device you are using….I can view pdfs in the browser mostly, but the data is still locked in there. I can manually open each one, or from the browser view copy/paste (if that’s allowed), but not only is this cumbersome and very time consuming, some pds don’t even allow copying, so it’s a broken solution.
    PDFs may have the ability to be made accessible for persons with disabilities, and that is great, but at the moment only provide a bare minimum (ie, you can download them) of accessibility on the web.
    Just my two cents.


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