Going paperless? Make your PDFs accessible

There's not much that's more frustrating for your staff than trying to fill out an online document and finding they can't even highlight the text.

Whether it's speeding up train season ticket loan applications or making your last board minutes available to all employees, there's many advantages to going paperless, and only one of those is about costs.

As part of a comprehensive and integrated Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy, organisations can stand out positively by providing compliant and accessible web pages and documents.

For staff with certain disabilities, barrier-free access to information is crucial, so accessibility should be at the top of your agenda. PDFs can help organisations offer this, looking the same no matter whether a worker is viewing the document on Windows, Mac, Linux or on the web. But you have to make sure your PDF is not only readable, but fully accessible.

For a PDF to be considered accessible, it must meet the following eight criteria:

1: Form fields must be accessible

Accessible PDF forms must contain fillable fields, as well as descriptions of these fields that can be read by a screen reading program. The fields must be called in a defined order using the tab key, so that people can fill out the form even if they are not able to use a mouse.

2: The document must contain text and must be searchable

A scanned paper document exists only as an image. Assistive systems cannot recognise it, and it also cannot be read aloud or presented in Braille. This type of file must therefore be converted into searchable text by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) system. Normally, it is necessary to do some manual editing to correct recognition errors, and include additional information such as bookmarks or alternative text descriptions for graphics or images in the document.

3: The document structure is created using tags, which define a logical reading order

Accessible PDFs have a hierarchical structure, clearly identifying headings, paragraphs, tables and lists. The structure of these tags creates a logical reading flow that assistive tools can use.

4: All links, graphics and form fields have a descriptive text

Accessible PDF documents contain alternative texts that describe the content of elements such as charts, illustrations, graphics, images, form fields, footnotes and links. Screen readers and other assistive tools can read this information and provide the user with an idea of the represented content.

5: The language of the document is defined

Some screen reading devices can read documents in different languages, with the correct emphasis and pronunciation. To use this function, the document must contain information about the language in which it was written.

6: The PDF document contains navigational aids

Links, bookmarks, headings and tables of contents all allow users to locate specific parts of the document directly, rather than having to plough through the entire text to find the information they want.

7: The security settings are configured correctly

Accessible documents must not be restricted in such a way that assistive tools are unable to access them. For example, screen readers may not be able to access content in documents in which copying text is prohibited.

8: The fonts used should contain characters that can be read

All information in an accessible PDF document should be presented in a way that allows assistive tools to extract and interpret it correctly. If fonts with special characters that cannot be read correctly are used, screen reader software will not be able to read the content.

Main image: Bigstock

Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther is a freelance media analyst, podcaster, and one-third of Media Voices. She has previously worked as a content marketing lead for Dennis Publishing and the Media Briefing. She writes frequently on topics such as subscriptions and tech developments for industry sites such as Digital Content Next and What’s New in Publishing. She is co-founder of the Publisher Podcast Awards and Publisher Podcast Summit; the first conference and awards dedicated to celebrating and elevating publisher podcasts.