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Why PDF Needs to be Part of Your Web Accessibility Audit


In today’s ever-connected world, digital accessibility should always be comprehensive—going beyond just website pages. In fact, many organizations now spend a great deal of time and effort to ensure their website pages, mobile applications, and customer kiosks are accessible and in compliance. But unfortunately, many overlook PDFs even though they too are digital assets.

So what is the answer? Look for a solution that is laser-focused on PDF accessibility. And whether that’s software or professional services—either can help achieve compliance with document accessibility standards, including WCAG, PDF/UA and Section 508.

Everyone has PDFs 

One of the reasons PDF files are so prevalent is that they are effortless to create. In addition, anyone can be an author of a PDF document, which means these digital assets may come from several different authors and sources—even if they are all stored in one place. 

Conceived as digital paper, the PDF remains one of the most popular document formats. In fact, according to the PDF Association, PDFs are the third most popular file format on the web (after HTML and XHTML)—even more popular than JPEG, PNG or GIF files.

The question becomes, with so much of the world’s content in PDF format, how do you ensure your PDFs are all accessible? To begin, if you are not actively using a solution that creates accessible documents, there is a high probability that your documents are not accessible. 

For instance, PDF files generated from Microsoft Word, Adobe Acrobat and other standard authoring systems do not add the required tags for accessibility by default. Furthermore, if they add tags, they are typically not done correctly. So, before we go into how to test documents for accessibility, let’s talk about what makes a PDF accessible.  

How do you make a PDF accessible?

By definition, a PDF file needs to be “tagged” to be accessible. The tag view of a PDF describes all of the document’s readable content via a screen reader or other assistive technology. There are different tags for each type of content, including heading levels, paragraphs, images, tables, lists and more. Additionally, tags must be in the correct sequence to ensure the natural flow of the document. Once a document has proper tags, reading order, appropriate alternative text, etc., it is considered accessible.

How do you test for accessibility?

Like website scanning tools, equivalent PDF scanners can only discover so much. That said, these scans can be an excellent first step in the journey to true accessibility. Using free tools like our own CommonLook PDF Validator can give you a quick assessment, including if the tags pass the accessibility standards such as WCAG 2.1 AA or PDF/UA. Assuming the files do pass the CommonLook Validator test (or any other tool), you will still want to ensure that alt-text descriptions are accurate along with the correct reading order.

How to get started with PDF accessibility?

Organizations facing large document remediation projects will often start with bulk remediation services and then purchase our software tools and training so they can do the work in-house for future projects. We call this the Hybrid Approach.

Lastly, if you require bulk remediation of PDF documents with guaranteed compliance to the accessibility standards, give us a call—we do this all the time for corporations, government agencies and non-profit organizations. In addition to bulk remediation, we also offer software tools for testing, remediating and certifying documents for accessibility.

Right now, CommonLook is offering free access to our software tools, training and remediation portal for 30 days—an easy way to check out our solutions before you buy.

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