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Accessibility means ensuring that your web content can be accessed and understood by all users, regardless of their (dis)ability (ie visual impairment). We talk a lot about accessibility in Web and Print Production, and so we should. There are many reasons why it is important that we turn this talk into action:

i. We have a legal responsibility to make our publications as accessible as they can be, to all audiences, regardless of their ability.

ii. The University has a Disability Action Plan which commits us to making our websites accessible, and to that end we always strive to meet or exceed industry standards. For instance we always aimed to meet AA compliance for the WCAG 1.0 standard and we aim to do the same for WCAG 2.0, which is now the current benchmark.

iii. Websites that are designed to be accessible are generally easier for everyone to read, and easier for search engines to find and promote.

iv. We have a strategic commitment and (I think) a moral responsibility to promote accessibility as an equity and inclusion issue, by which I mean that we are a University (for crying out loud) and we really should be able to do a good job in this regard (if we can’t, who can?).

v. Also, of course, it makes good business sense to be welcoming to the widest possible audience.

Generally the University is on quite solid ground when it comes to web accessibility. The CMS template produces websites that are standards-compliant, and I like to think there is a general awareness that we should provide alt tags for images, and consider text equivalents for other items (such as videos and flash animations) and processes (such as form functions).

One increasingly pressing issue, however, is the proliferation of PDFs. Naturally, as a University we produce an awful lot of publications (everything from journal articles and lecture notes to policy documents and the ubiquitous printed form). And equally naturally we often use PDF as their default medium, as PDF presents both nicely and consistently.

This is also very timely due to the increased interest in using ‘e-book’ solutions (also called ‘interactive PDFs’ or ‘flippy-flippies’).

The problem is that PDFs are not perfectly accessible.

The worst case scenario is a PDF of a scanned document (say a page from a book): a common occurrence in our teaching materials. The words in this PDF will not be ‘visible’ to a screen reader at all. As such, PDFs based on scans should be avoided at all costs, or you should consider a text-based equivalent, such as a link to the document in HTML or RTF format.

Even a text-based PDF that can be read by a screen reader is not automatically (perfectly) accessible. The individual words may be, but the visual clues we use to understand and navigate a document may not be. For instance, you may highlight the word ‘conclusion’ by making it bold, and big, and maybe even red. This will make it easy for a sited person to skip straight to the conclusion if they wish, and places greater visual emphasis on what is often the most important element of a document. But a screen reader won’t pick up on this, and neither will your blind reader, who will be missing out on this added visual information.

Therefore, if we are to be genuinely accessible when we present PDF content, we need to either provide an accessible alternative (such as a RTF), or take steps to ensure our PDFs are accessible.

One way of dealing with this is to use Word to set up your document and clearly identify headings using the appropriate style (heading 1, 2 etc) before generating the PDF. This style formatting should then carry through into the PDF and allow the screen reader to access this visual information.

There are a number of other strategies you can adopt to make your PDFs more accessible, and here are some useful resources to help you with that.

- PDF Accessibility Education Sessions for the Australian Government

- Challenges of using PDF documents online (1/2 day forum)

- PDF Techniques for WCAG 2.0

If you find these links useful, and especially if you want to discuss best practice in regards to PDF production, please do let us know. We’d be delighted to find out more, share experiences, and work with you to make sure the Uni sets a high standard in this area.

You can find some more info and links on the WPP website.