Accessibility in PDF and Elsewhere

4th International PDF/A Conference • Proceedings • PDF/A Forever • Long-Term Archiving with PDF

 We often forget that a significant percentage of all printed pages produced every year are not books, manuals, newspapers and other such documents. The bulk of printed output are the insurance policies, bank statements, telephone bills, invoices, statements and other documents that are sent to our homes. The quantity of these documents produced annually number in the hundreds of billions of pages. In the United States alone, over 80 billion transactional mail pieces are sent annually, each including multiple pages. 

In the customer communications industry there are many significant trends taking place:

  • The migration from printed documents to electronic documents; highly relevant to our focus on PDF/A
  • The requirements for organizations to archive these transactional documents for legal and compliance reasons; also highly relevant to our focus on PDF/A
  • The introduction of new production technologies, such as low-cost full color and other developments, which are drawing attention for their cost reduction and marketing potential
  • The need to further protect customers’ private and confidential data in both the physical and electronic production workflows for these documents

In addition to these trends we now must add the ability to provide document accessibility solutions. Companies have to serve the needs of those consumers who cannot access printed or electronically presented document content.

This article draws on our company’s 15 years of experience providing solutions to the transactional customer communications industry, our experience providing document accessibility services and our own extensive research.

Read on to find out more regarding the various physical and electronic options for document accessibility, how PDF/A forms the foundation upon which accessibility for electronic documents may be built and how PDF/UA will become the key standard that will serve this important community.

Why does PDF/A matter for Transactional documents?

Most organizations now realize that they need to keep the transactional documents that they send to their customers in an archive format for compliance, legal, workflow, data extraction and other purposes. As organizations contemplate the architecture and file storage formats involved, PDF/A is clearly one of the leading standards due to its fidelity, popularity and reliability.

The fact that PDF/A is the defined international standard as an “electronic document file format for long-term preservation” speaks volumes. In other words, PDF/A is becoming significantly important to the customer communications transactional document industry.

However, many organizations do not understand the two conformance levels for PDF/A, and the implications surrounding which conformance level they choose.

PDF/A-1b is the minimum conformance level for PDF/A and it ensures that the “rendered visual appearance” is reproducible over the long term. Most organizations in this industry use this conformance level today for PDF/A. However, it does not guarantee that extracted text will be legible or comprehensible – this is an important consideration that we will discuss below.

PDF/A-1a is the full compliance level and preserves the natural reading order and content text stream. This requires significant structural tags, and provides:

  • Text reflowing capabilities which are important for mobile devices such as smart phones and other mobile devices due to their small screen size. The Gartner group predicts that mobile devices will outnumber PCs as the most common web access device by 2013, so this is an important consideration.
  • Reliable extraction of text from the PDF to facilitate down stream production workflows including integrity checking, and the additional ability to use data from within the PDF for indexing and retrieval purposes.
  • Much of the foundation upon which to build accessible PDF/UA documents.

Due to our industry’s need to reliably store these documents in ‘true fidelity’ format, the need to properly support PDF on mobile devices, the need to reliably use content within PDFs for production workflows and the need to build PDF documents that are accessible, we strongly recommend that organizations go well beyond the minimum standard supported by PDF/A-1b.

To meet the minimum requirements a transactional document:

  • Must be tagged as per ISO 32000-1, 14.8
  • Must be tagged in the logical reading order
  • Must properly tag all headings as per ISO 32000-1:2008, 14.8.4.3.2
  • Must properly tag tables according to ISO 32000-1:2008, Table 337 and Table 349 – this is very important for transactional documents.

Should use bookmarks whenever possible to assist in navigation – this is very useful for long business invoices and for insurance documents.

Must use descriptive alternate text to image tags – this would help a user to understand that a graphic depicts electricity usage history in a utility bill, for example

What are Transactional Customer Communications?

Transactional Customer Communications are the documents sent to you via the mail or electronically that record ‘point in time’ information about your contractual and financial relationship with an organization that provides services for you. These documents officially communicate your transactions, amounts due, the minimum payment you must make, what happens if you don’t pay on time, interest charges, insurance coverage details, the change in your investments and other information.

Organizations that produce these documents include banks, wealth management organizations, credit card companies, insurance companies, telecommunications companies, utility companies, government departments and other organizations that are compelled by regulations to deliver these documents to their clients.

Who needs accessible documents?

There are many reasons why individuals may request an accessible document. Major vision limitations include diabetes, clinical blindness, old age and reading difficulties (e.g. dyslexia). Finding information about how many individuals need accessible documents is a challenge itself.

Our ‘Document Accessibility by the numbers’ infographic details some of the regional facts, but your company’s customer needs will be determined by the types of product or services you supply and the demographic of your customers.

Research in CrawfordTech’s division for accessible document creation and mailing services shows the following pattern: 6% of ‘alternate format clients’ request Braille, 92% request large print, 0.5% request an eText document and 1.5% request an electronic audio file.

CrawfordTech’s DAS division currently provides accessible document creation and mailing services, so we are in a position to discuss high level usage patterns and share the trends we are seeing.

Organizations do not really know how PDF documents are currently being used for ‘read aloud’ or text-reflowing purposes – they simply can’t tell how users are interacting with their PDFs – but due to the fact that tagged PDF is not broadly adopted, our opinion is that PDFs are not yet widely used for this purpose.

It is important to note, however, that interest in this capability has increased significantly in 2010.

Why should I take the time and effort to ensure my documents are accessible?

Some organizations have taken the time and effort to make their facilities, systems and documents accessible. In fact, some companies have provided accessible documents for nearly 20 years. For them, it was always ‘the right thing to do’.

Other organizations are only now becoming interested in making their documents accessible due to lobbying and awareness efforts, new and pending legislation, customer satisfaction and the significant costs associated with class-action law suits and litigation.

The bottom line? Leading organizations are already making their transactional customer communications accessible and they are following industry trends and standards, such as PDF/UA, for their output. Those who have not yet implemented their document accessibility programs are looking for leadership from standards bodies, such as the PDF/A Competence Center, to help them.

Approaches to Creating Accessible Transactional Documents

There are two approaches to creating accessible documents for your clients:

Approach 1 – Do it yourself

Just as it sounds, this approach means acquiring the software and equipment required and integrating it into your current systems and workflows. It also means developing or hiring accessibility expertise within your organization to maintain and enhance your document accessibility deployment strategy for transactional documents. This strategy will evolve as standards such as PDF/UA are published, as other technology trends impact accessibility and as demographic shifts impact accessible document usage.

We predict that some very large organizations will wish to adopt this approach to transactional document accessibility to maintain control of the diverse needs of their organization.

Approach 2 – Outsource

As with most outsource, SaaS (Software as a Service) or Cloud computing approaches, this means finding a vendor that is responsible for being current on all of the trends, standards and developments in accessible transactional documents. You will then work with that organization as both a service provider and consultant to produce all of the electronic and physical documents in accessible formats based upon your specific industry vertical and customer demographics needs.

We predict that most organizations will utilize this type of approach due to its cost-effective nature.

Why is PDF/UA so important for these types of documents?

It is important to restate that PDF/UA is built upon the strong foundation of PDF/A. A PDF/UA document can also be a conforming PDF/A document. This means that a properly prepared PDF/UA document will meet all of the existing PDF document needs of this industry for accuracy, retention, longevity and the other key PDF/A benefits.

It is critically important to have a PDF standard for accessible documents:

  • Users of an accessible PDF can be assured that all software and devices they use will be compatible and will utilize all of the accessible features to meet their specific needs. Let’s face it; these individuals have enough challenges getting access to the wide variety of documents that surround them today. They want their accessibility tools to work reliably and consistently. Having problems with their accessibility technology is an unnecessary frustration that they shouldn’t have to endure.
  • Providers of accessibility technology and assistive devices will only need to implement their particular features against this PDF/UA standard. This is a relatively small community of vendors and standards are highly important to them. This standard will help them keep their development and support costs low, improving their profitability and ongoing viability. In turn it will also ensure that their products are available at reasonable prices for their customers.

The publication of this single, defined accessibility standard for PDF files will be an important development for transactional document producers, accessibility solution vendors and for individuals that need document accessibility.

In Conclusion

PDF/UA is a welcome standard for organizations that wish to be compliant and serve all of their customers equally and fairly. It is an important cornerstone for organizations that have to serve the needs of their clients and the wide variety of their accessibility needs. It is a welcome and consistent standard for the visually disabled community, the assistive technology they use and the vendors that support them.

About Dave Hook

Dave Hook is the Vice President of Product Management for Crawford Technologies and has been in the transactional customer communications document industry for 23 years. He has held a broad range of management positions in organizations such as Xerox Canada Ltd., Symcor Inc., and Davis + Henderson. He has led the introduction of many products such as check image statements, electronic statement archives, statement composition services, Braille and large format printing services, statement marketing (transpromo), and many others. Through these initiatives he has gained a broad range of experience within the transactional printing industry both as a vendor and as a services provider to the banking, telecommunications, loyalty, retail and other industries. Dave sits on the US PDF/UA committee as well as various other standards committees. Dave speaks at XPLOR, (an international association that promotes education and networking for its members) and has been an invited speaker to other user and vendor conferences to discuss industry trends and developments. As Director of Product Management, Dave is responsible for directing and developing the portfolio of software products and solutions for Crawford Technologies Inc.

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