The Blind Choose HTML Over PDFs

2019 NFB Convention Crowd

There are a number of digital document formats to be found online. By far the most ubiquitous are PDFs and HTML. These comprise the majority of digital content for enterprise organizations, educational institutions, banks, insurance companies, healthcare, retail, travel, hospitality, and entertainment. 

The Blind Make a Resolution

Last year, 2018, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the largest and oldest member organization of the blind and for the blind in the United States, passed a resolution at their annual convention. The resolution stated that all government agencies should stop using PDF documents and begin producing documents in HTML5 formats by December 31, 2019. Further, all existing PDFs must be converted into HTML5 by January 1, 2020. 

Pros of PDFs

PDFs have many advantages as a file type.  They maintain their formatting so they look the same no matter what device or platform they are accessed upon, even when printed. They can be password protected to prevent editing and maintain security on a document. It is easy to integrate graphics or links and they are often smaller than a graphics file of the same content. 

Cons of PDFs

However, the NFB points out that HTML over PDFs have a number of advantages. In PDFs, the text does not reflow to proportionally fill a screen. You must zoom and scroll to read the content on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. For PDFs found online, unless a PDF reader is available to the user, the file must be downloaded to be viewed. They also carry different commands for viewing and editing than many other web platforms, and often PDF editing platforms are inherently complex. They can be difficult to search from a browser.   

Additionally, PDFs have a large number of accessibility issues and are often unusable for disabled users, particularly those who use assistive technology such as screen readers and connected Braille displays. If they are not properly tagged with structural elements understood by assistive technology, they can be difficult if not impossible to navigate. Elements such as images or links can be invisible to the assistive technology, causing them to be completely missed.  Forms, such as government forms, or other input-requiring files, are often completely unusable for users of assistive technology. The user is often unable to even get into the input fields using a keyboard (blind people are not often successful using a mouse) and often the fields are poorly labeled or not labeled at all.

PDFs and Accessibility

Additionally, PDFs have a large number of accessibility issues and are often unusable for disabled users, particularly those who use assistive technology such as screen readers and connected Braille displays. If they are not properly tagged with structural elements understood by assistive technology, they can be difficult if not impossible to navigate. Elements such as images or links can be invisible to the assistive technology, causing them to be completely missed.  Forms, such as government forms, or other input-requiring files, are often completely unusable for users of assistive technology. The user is often unable to even get into the input fields using a keyboard (blind people are not often successful using a mouse) and often the fields are poorly labeled or not labeled at all. 

Poor PDF Experience

Imagine going to a government website to access a service and finding a PDF form that needs to be filled out.  You go to the form and then discover you cannot access any of the form fields. No amount of clicking, tabbing, or arrowing will allow you to get into the online form field.  You cannot make any inputs AT ALL. Or, you can access the field, but there is no label, so you don’t know whether that field is for your name, your address, or some other information.  This means a task that should take a few minutes cannot be done at all, or not without help from a person with whom you may or may not wish to share your private information. Think about how much time each of us spends every week, month or year filling out forms online in order to obtain goods and services, check our medical and financial information, file taxes, and deal with the everyday bureaucracy of our lives.  Inaccessible PDF forms can be like the worst day at the Motor Vehicle Administration if you are using assistive technology. 

Fortunately, it is possible to remediate PDFs to make them accessible.  They can be properly tagged, form fields labeled and made so that a user of assistive technology can access and edit the fields. 

The Best Solution to PDF Inaccessibility is HTML

Choosing HTML over PDFs files is the best fix for accessibility issues with PDFs.  It means they are inherently more accessible. They will reflow (fit text to the screen) on a variety of devices and platforms, particularly mobile devices.  This means they are more usable for all users – not just those who use assistive technology. HTML is searchable by search engines and functions on any browser, and it can be easily updated. Interactive content can more easily be incorporated than with PDFs. The file size is smaller, and it is far easier to add accessibility features to make it usable for a greater percentage of the population. HTML is inclusive, flexible and usable. 

You can learn more about PDF accessibiliy by checking out our blog on PDF remediation

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Tammy Albee

Tammy Albee | Content Marketer | Onix Tammy joined Onix after four years experience working at the National Federation of the Blind. She firmly maintains that accessibility is about reaching everyone, regardless of ability, and boosting your market share in the process. "Nobody should be barred from accessing information. It's what drives our modern society."