Lawyer warns that PDFs fail on accessibility

Summary:Technology lawyer Struan Robertson has advised that companies need to provide HTML or text versions of PDFs to comply with disability legislation

PDF documents on websites and intranets need to be accompanied by accessible HTML or text versions if they are to comply with disability legislation, a leading technology lawyer has claimed.

Struan Robertson, a senior associate at Pinsent Masons and the editor of IT law website Out-law.com, said that the accessibility of the PDF (portable document format)  was often forgotten, even by those companies that are striving to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). The DDA, first introduced in 1995 but revised in 2005, requires organisations to make "reasonable adjustments" when catering to the requirements of people with special needs, such as visual impairment.

"The legal duty is to provide the information in a way that is accessible and usable," Robertson told ZDNet UK. "Many PDFs are not accessible and the solution is to provide accessible HTML in addition to PDFs, if you wish to use PDFs."

Robertson added that, although an organisation that has generally "addressed web accessibility" would be unlikely to be sued over its PDFs, a failure to provide an accessible alternative "might trigger a complaint".

"Many of us will dutifully warn the user that a PDF is going to be opened… but we stop short of offering an accessible document," he said, indicating that this meant that "many disabled users take 'PDF will open in a new window' to mean 'don't click here'".

Robertson was speaking on Tuesday at a seminar at London's Internet World event, alongside Hugh Huddy of the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), Jon Gooday of the disability charity AbilityNet and Fergus Brady of RiverDocs, manufacturer of an accessibility converter for online documents. The four panellists detailed issues that make PDFs inaccessible to the partially sighted or otherwise disabled.

Brady suggested that "last-minute changes" to documents were a major problem, in that "it is very easy to put that document up online and that is the reason why the majority of PDFs online are inaccessible".

Adobe, whose Acrobat software is most commonly used to create PDFs, had carried out "a lot of work" to make PDFs accessible, said Gooday. Nonetheless, he called the process of making such documents work with an audible screen reader "long and complicated", citing image labelling and document structure as two major pitfalls. Huddy said that the RNIB had tried to produce an accessible PDF of its annual report, but hit "glitches" with tables and slipping column headers — factors he said could render such an important document legally invalid.

"Most PDFs would not stand up to a basic accessibility check," said Huddy, who suggested that PDFs made from a "well-structured Word document" using Acrobat Pro might pass muster. He added that, in most cases, it would be "prudent to publish an alternative format, whether that is in HTML, [rich text format] or plain text, alongside [the PDF version of a document]".

Adobe had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.

Topics: Tech Industry

About

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't be paying many bills. His early journalistic career was spent in general news, working behind the scenes for BBC radio and on-air as a newsreader for independent stations. David's main focus is on communications, of both... Full Bio

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