Preparing PDF and Office Documents for Accessibility

Making documents accessible with Acrobat Professional or other DTP tools is complicated, time-consuming and therefore expensive. Good preparation can drastically shorten this process or even make it superfluous. That's what this guide is supposed to be about.

Article Content

Print is print – digital is digital

Why don't you actually print out your website and distribute it to your customers? It sounds silly, but on the other hand, we put brochures optimized for printing on the internet. As if all customers would like to read a document optimized for DIN A5 on their smartphone. The greatest effort is actually in making such a print-optimized document accessible. BTW I would be interested in the dropout rates for such documents. How often are PDF documents actually read? Downloads don't count, because you often only know when you click that it's a PDF.

The most common argument is wrong: Yes, almost all end devices can display PDFs. However, the same end devices can also display websites, which have the nice advantage of automatically adapting to the display size.

Here's the key step: create the content first, then optimize it for the channel.

Working with source documents

A format in which content and layout can be separated is optimal, for example Markdown, XML or LaTex. Since this is not always possible, word processing is the best compromise between implementation and separation of the two aspects: the format templates are not ideal, but they are better than nothing. The advantage is that you can usually create other document types such as ePub from such formats.

When working with word processors, there are several important aspects:

  • Don't improvise the layout. Always use text processing capabilities to create spacing, page breaks, indentation, and so on.
  • Use the templates consistently, especially for headings, lists and so on. You can still adjust the layout of the formats later, it is important that this is done on the basis of the format templates.
  • Describe the graphics used. It is not the responsibility of the desktop publisher to describe graphics.
  • The simpler the layout, the easier it can be made accessible. If you really need that line, have the logo on every page, and so on.
  • Do not place text boxes. These can be read in Word and co.
  • This isn't a guide to creating accessible documents, so we're just talking about general principles. You can read everything else in the instructions for the respective word processor, here for Libre Office.
  • A and O of good documents are optimal document templates. There you can set aspects like font size, colors and so on. It is also important that you provide instructions for the creators, for example on how to create information graphics.

    If you implement the steps consistently, you can create a document that is easy to use for blind persons with on-board resources. Experts always insist on conforming to the standards. In my opinion, however, conformance is overestimated, especially when it comes to documents. If we give out prizes for stupid, unnecessarily complicated processes, the developers from Adobe and PDF UA will win first prizes.

    Content aspects

    There are some basics of visual design that I just want to touch on very briefly here. There are basically three design principles:

    • The contrast for text smaller than 18 pt or 14 pt bold should be at least 4.5:1. You can find contrast calculators on the Internet, for example at WebAIM .
    • The contrast for text 18 pt or 14 pt bold and larger as well as for elements in information graphics should be at least 3:1.
    • No information should be communicated solely through colour. Look for elements that convey a function or information and make sure that there is at least one information element that is not a color. Red/green and yellow/blue are the most common color blindnesses, so these colors should not be used side by side.
    • No features should be used that are based solely on a sensory perception. This includes position information )on the right you will find), color information (note the red text) and similar.

    Of course, topics such as animations or multimedia are also part of digital accessibility, but have so far played a subordinate role in documents.

    There are no specifications for font formatting in the guidelines, so it is not included here.

    tables and charts

    Tables should also be prepared using the appropriate word processing functions. Empty cells are not allowed.

    If you create complex charts, you should make sure that you also include the table in the document if a chart was generated from tabular data. Diagrams can often not be adequately described in text form for the blind, but a table can be read 100% accessible if it has been created correctly. You save a lot of time here because describing graphical representations is very complex and time-consuming.

    Optimization of the workflow

    However, if the documents are to be made accessible with Acrobat Pro or another professional tool, you have already created a good basis with the steps described above. It is also important that the document to be made accessible is available in FINAL. Even minor changes can result in the accessibility process having to be repeated. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as small changes for accessible PDFs.

    In the case of forms, it makes sense not to make them accessible in Word. Unfortunately, Microsoft Office controls are not compatible with the PDF standard. It is sufficient if you prepare the form in Word. For example, you can use dotted lines instead of the input fields. The document must then be post-processed with a professional tool.

    Most service providers that I know prefer to receive the source document in something like Office format. You can then repair what Office can do better there faster and only do the rework in professional tools.

    Other articles