Electronic documents are proliferating, and Portable Document Format (PDF) is an established output management standard for both printed and electronic documents in many industries. A number of specialized PDF versions have been adopted as ISO standards already, and additional versions are in the wings.
With the growing volume and diversity of electronic documents, ensuring barrier-free access for anyone and everyone is taking on an additional sense of urgency. An individual with impaired sight has the same right to access document content as a sighted person. In fact, providing barrier-free access to electronic documents is not just a “nice-to-have” feature. In many jurisdictions, it is a legal requirement.
The focus for output management today has moved from producing as many documents as possible as fast as possible to building intelligent documents with content that is both generally and inclusively accessible. Freedom from physical barriers is the goal.
Metadata and Intelligent Document Output
Intelligent, efficient output management that supports universal accessibility requires one thing above all: metadata that can be read and saved as it travels with the document throughout the entire generation and conversion process. Metadata provide the foundation for downstream or parallel processing, such as when a document not only needs to be printed but also must be output as an electronic communication, interpreted by a screen reader, presented on a refreshable Braille screen, or archived.
Accessibility Starts with Document Design
The electronic PDF format provides an inherent advantage over paper documents for total accessibility, since electronic PDF documents can be designed to accommodate synthetic speech or refreshable Braille. A new PDF version, PDF/UA (universal access) is emerging as an industry standard for providing barrier-free document access.
Although PDF/UA is not yet an official ISO standard, it addresses several important – and essential – design requirements for creating barrier-free documents. Underlying document design is essential to making a document accessible. Key design requirements for creating barrier-free PDF documents include:
- A logical structure and reading order. Tags define reading order, and tell a screen reader how to interpret elements such as headings, tables and multiple columns on a page. Screen readers depend on tags to enable presenting documents in a way that makes sense to a listener hearing the text read aloud.
- Text descriptions for figures, forms, and links. Visual elements such as graphics, figures and forms need to have descriptive text associated with them in order to present their content to listeners and Braille screen users.
- Navigational aids such as links, bookmarks, and tables of contents. These make it possible for users to direct the screen reader or Braille screen to a particular location in a document rather than requiring going through the document in page-by-page order.
- Security that doesn’t interfere with creating a barrier-free document. Sometimes security restrictions placed on use of documents can limit screen readers or interfere with conversion of a document for reading on a refreshable Braille screen. All content must be available for the interpretation that creates accessible documents to take place.
A Document Format and Much More
With its expanding range of versions and applications, there is no doubt that PDF is far more than a pure document format. Because of its ability to include attributes such as the document structure, reading direction, and alternative explanatory text for images, PDF is well suited as the vehicle to deliver barrier-free documents. It is a valuable and high-power format with the flexibility to accommodate evolving requirements, as its emergence as the standard for universal accessibility attests.