If you’ve finally started the journey to making your website accessible, good for you! Now as many as 20% more people will be able to take advantage of the goods and services offered on your website. While you may have updated the text, images, and navigation functions on your most important web pages, you may not have gotten around to the pages and pages of backlogged or archived PDF documents that are hiding under easily forgotten, seldom-used tabs. Maybe your menu of services is only available as a PDF on your website, requiring users to download to view it. Either way, remember that while the rest of your website may be accessible using a screen reader, PDFs may not be, even if they just include text. Your PDFs may need remediating to accessible PDF, HTML or ePub formats. There are a number of different ways to accomplish this, depending on your time, budget, knowledge, and needs.
What are my options?
If you have enough knowledgeable staff within your company to be able to remediate your own documents in-house, you can save a lot of money. The key here is making sure that whoever is doing the remediation has expert knowledge of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and skill at PDF remediation. After spending time and resources on this process, you could still face litigation if your documents weren’t remediated correctly and are still inaccessible. If you have staff who are familiar with remediation but aren’t completely confident with their WCAG knowledge, consider hiring an outside agency. That way, the experts can let you know what documents on your website need to be remediated and can help you prioritize the process. Your team can take over from there to remediate the documents based on the expert’s plan.
Another way to make the process simple and efficient is to invest in reputable, trusted remediation software made just for the purpose of PDF remediation. There are generalized software programs available that you can use to manually add the tags needed to make PDFs accessible, but this can be very time-consuming. Be sure the tools you are using can meet the needs of screen readers users. For example, a program may be able to identify text and charts, but may not organize the text in such a way that the screen reader would read it to the user in the correct order. Tables may be read from left to right, top to bottom, or not clearly identify the row and column headers so the user can understand the material.
Software that is created especially for PDF remediation will more accurately identify elements in a PDF, and offer quick, easy “touch-ups” to manually re-order tables and non-linear text (like text organized in columns) to be read correctly, as well as many other features needed to properly tag document elements for a screen reader. Keep in mind that while there are many semi-automated software programs for remediation, none are completely automated. Many programs can discern images, columns, and tables, but even the most sophisticated can’t accurately tell what images are, whether the heading levels are correct, or whether the reading order of a column or table is correct. It requires a human to identify the context of the document to make sure those elements are correct.
If you don’t have the manpower or time to figure out how to make your PDFs accessible, call an expert. There are a number of companies out there that specialize in turning your documents into accessible formats quickly and correctly, so you don’t have to worry about whether your documents will actually be accessible or not.
Experts can also dig through your website to find all the hidden PDFs you had forgotten you even had, and when the job is done they can test the documents to ensure they meet WCAG. Because experts have so much experience with remediation they can usually complete the process much more quickly than doing it in-house.
Even if you do employ people who are very familiar with accessibility best practices, chances are they don’t spend very much time converting PDFs and won’t be as quick or efficient as having a pro take care of it for you. Because there is a lot of human interaction with this process no matter what kind of software you use, there is also room for error. Professional PDF conversion services should include a validation process, during which someone who is not the remediator double checks the document to make sure there were no conversion errors and that the document can be correctly understood by the screen reader. Some conversion companies will “validate” documents using automated software that checks for a number of specific coding issues that can cause accessibility barriers, but even the most sophisticated validation software can only catch 25-30% of problems. Incorrect reading order or incorrectly described images can’t be detected by anything except humans who can discern context.
How do I pick what’s best for my company?
There are three main points to consider when deciding whether to tackle PDF remediation in-house or outsource the project.
Do you have accessibility experts on your team already? Do they have the time to spend remediating documents or are they almost always tied up with other more pressing projects? If your experts have time to spend remediating documents, then the most cost-effective, efficient option is to invest in a reputable remediation software and complete the project in-house.
If you don’t have anyone to remediate who is particularly knowledgeable about accessibility, you should consult an accessibility expert to help you prioritize the project, especially if you have a large number of PDFs to remediate. Ideally, you should seek a remediation service with a combination of automated and human validation to make sure your documents are accessible and usable by everyone.
Is this something that needs to be done right away? Have you received a letter from an attorney saying your website is inaccessible? Or perhaps you’re a government agency with a deadline to become compliant. If so, you need to become compliant as soon as possible, and now is not the time to learn how to remediate your own documents. If time is of the essence, leave it to the professionals.
If you are being proactive and investing in accessibility before you face litigation, and you also have the time and resources to have someone on your team devote to remediating your own PDFs, investing in efficient, reputable conversion software and completing the project yourself is a great option. That way, you also know what to do going forward so that you can remediate any future PDFs before posting them to your website.
What kind of budget do you have? Depending on the number and complexity of documents to be remediated, purchasing a license to use remediation software in-house is probably going to be less expensive than outsourcing. However, time is money. While completing this project yourself may be less expensive than hiring a professional, it will probably take you a lot longer, and you run the risk of missing potential accessibility issues of which you may not have been aware. If you go through all the trouble of remediation only to find out you’ve made enough mistakes to render your document inaccessible anyway, you’ll still face the risk of litigation, which can be outrageously expensive. If you have any doubts about your abilities, it’s best to hire a professional to at least offer testing to make sure you’re safe against litigation because it’s certainly cheaper than facing a lawsuit.
Initially, you may want to just jump in and try to figure out how to remediate your own website, but the process of making your website accessible should be considered very carefully. Whether or not to remediate your own website and the elements on it will be a decision made based on your business’s unique needs, and unless you have professional accessibility experts on staff, outside professionals should be consulted to make sure it’s done correctly. Don’t make the mistake of only considering money when deciding how to best approach your accessibility process.