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California Community Colleges Accessibility CenterIntroduced in the early 1990s by Adobe Systems, the Portable Document Format (PDF) file offered a solution for sharing visually rich documents. Text, fonts, graphics and other content could be bundled into a single file and be reproduced with the same visual fidelity on other computer systems and printers.

However, the basic technology underlying the PDF file type resulted in accessibility problems for individuals who were blind, visually impaired or had other print-based disabilities; there was no actual document structure in the PDF file. It was not until 2001 that PDF tags were introduced to provide a basic level of structure for a document’s content and rudimentary accessibility support.

Both assistive technologies and publishing applications have evolved since then, and now support various components of the PDF tag structure to improve access for individuals with print-based disabilities. Yet even with these improvements, colleges still struggle to create and deliver documents in an accessible format for students and the entire campus community. Given the scope of the issue, colleges should pursue multiple strategies to deliver accessible PDFs campus-wide.

Train Accessible Authoring Techniques

One strategy is to train content authors to follow proper authoring techniques and use applications that support tagged PDF output. Training staff to create accessible documents can have multiple benefits, including:

  • Providing students with immediate access to instructional materials

  • Streamlining conversions into alternate formats for students with print-based disabilities (e.g., braille, audio, etc.)

  • Reducing the number of inaccessible versions that must be remediated

Access to training and instructional resources, though, is necessary for institutional faculty and staff to learn the techniques and workflow processes to support accessible PDF creation. Online videos and tutorials demonstrating accessible document creation are available for free for California Community Colleges faculty and staff via the Professional Learning Network and The High Tech Center Training Unit also offers in-person training sessions on MS Word and PDF document accessibility techniques.

There are also numerous online resources detailing accessible authoring techniques, including those from WebAIM, the CCC Accessibility Center, and the University of Washington.

Use Accessibility Tools For Remediation

While training can improve the accessibility of new documents, there is often a need to remediate PDF files that did not have accessibility information included during the authoring process or were created using applications that did not support accessible PDF output. One simple method is to use optical character recognition/scanning applications, such as Abbyy FineReader or Omnipage, to scan the PDF document and output a tagged version of the file. While this can create a tagged version of the PDF, this method can still be missing accessibility information and requires human intervention to verify the logical document structure.

A better approach to remediating PDF documents requires a content author or specialist to open the PDF document, create the logical document structure and include accessibility information into each page of the PDF file. Different applications can be used to fix PDF documents for accessibility, including Adobe Acrobat and CommonLook PDF Global Access. Another tool, Equidox, is available from the CCC Accessibility Center to aid colleges in fixing PDF documents for accessibility at the college. Regardless of the specific tool, remediating PDF documents requires additional time and expertise to produce the accessible versions.

Outsource To Vendors

A third option for supporting PDF accessibility at the college is to outsource inaccessible documents to PDF remediation vendors. While possibly the easiest solution, expenses can accumulate and it may not be a viable, long-term option.

The challenge is that the creation and use of PDF documents at a college is ongoing and repeatedly outsourcing all documents can lead to excessive costs. Additionally, there can be a delay between when the document is produced and when the accessible version is returned to the college, leading to the publication of the inaccessible version.

For time-sensitive materials, this delay can impact outreach and communication with students, faculty, staff and the general campus community. Still, outsourcing PDF remediation to a vendor can assist in reducing the backlog of documents at a campus or help with large, complex reports.

Consider A Varied Approach

Colleges should consider multiple options when identifying an accessibility strategy for PDF documents. Ongoing training can reduce the number of new, inaccessible PDF documents being created as well as raise awareness for effective accessibility authoring techniques. PDF remediation applications, such as Equidox, can aid colleges in fixing time-sensitive materials and ensure that more complex documents are modified in support of accessibility requirements. Outsourcing documents to vendors may be an option when there is a backlog of PDF files, complex documents or insufficient staffing resources.

If PDF accessibility is a concern for you and your institution, please remember our monthly IT Accessibility Office Hours and the IT Accessibility Workshop in July. At both the Office Hours and the Workshop, we will be discussing and reviewing PDF accessibility strategies and look forward to your participation. The IT Accessibility Office Hours is on Thursday, June 8, at 1 p.m. and the IT Accessibility Workshop is on Tuesday, July 25, at Mt San Antonio College.

Sean Keegan is Interim Director of
the California Community Colleges Accessibility Center



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