What People who are Blind have to say about PDFs

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Accessible PDF documents are a must

Try to imagine how people with disabilities accomplish everyday tasks that abled persons take for granted. It can be difficult. In particular, it is hard to understand the experience of someone trying to access digital information when it is delivered via a screen reader or connected Braille display. Assistive technology users will tell you that straight text for text presentation does not always provide the same experience. It is imperative to provide accessible PDF documents for everyone who interacts with your content. 

The following quotes are what people who are blind have to say about accessible PDF documents, directly from those articles and videos. 

What is an accessible document? 

From a document produced by the Mississippi State University National Research and Training Center on Blindness & Low Vision.

“An accessible document is a document that is readable by any individual. Many individuals who are blind or visually impaired use screen readers to maneuver through a document and understand the contents.”


Why So Many PDFs are Not Readable by Screen Readers

From a blog post published by Wright State University

“When a student can’t read a PDF with a screen reader, it’s most often because of one of the following.

  • No text. The document must have real text, not just an image of text.
  • No tags. The content must have tags. These lie below the surface, like HTML tags.
  • Incorrect order. Even with text and tags, your content may get read by a screen reader in an order you would not expect.

The most common culprits are articles that people scan from print publications then save as PDFs. Each page is one big image. To a screen reader, there is no text to read. Students with screen readers may have software that will use optical character recognition to make text from an image and then will add tags to the text. Although this kind of solution may help students get by, automated remedies frequently fall short of providing full accessibility.”


Creating Accessible Documents

From an article published by BrailleWorks

“One of the most important things when creating accessible documents in braille, audio, large print, or accessible PDF is authoring content that doesn’t rely heavily on visual elements.”


A Guide to Making Documents Accessible

From an article by Jennifer Sutton published by the American Council of the Blind.

“Regardless of the alternate formats you are producing, the process will be easier if you think about it early, perhaps even during the writing phase. We urge you to take alternate format production as seriously as you would the production of a document in print. After all, the look, sound, and feel of your final product represent you to blind people in the same way that a print document represents you to sighted people.”


Making all PDFs Accessible

From an article by Diane Brauner, published by Perkins School for the Blind

“Why are some PDFs accessible while others are not? It depends on how the PDF was created. PDFs that are created as a Word document then saved as a .pdf have text that is typically accessible with a screen reader. If the PDF was created by scanning or taking a picture of a document (which creates images) and then the image is saved as a PDF; this method of creating digital PDFs is not accessible with a screen reader. However, there are ways to convert these inaccessible PDFs to an accessible PDF.”


Improving Accessibility of Scientific Documents

From a study by Lucy Lu Wang, et. al. published by Cornell University

“The majority of scientific papers are distributed in PDF, which poses challenges for accessibility, especially for blind and low vision (BLV) readers. We characterize the scope of this problem by assessing the accessibility of 11,397 PDFs published 2010–2019 sampled across various fields of study, finding that only 2.4% of these PDFs satisfy all of our defined accessibility criteria.”


The accessibility experience: How does a blind person navigate PDF documents and forms?

An excerpt from a YouTube video of a talk given by René Jaun at a PDF Accessibility Days event in Copenhagen.  This video is worth a listen because it gives a really good overview of the struggle a person using assistive technology has when trying to read an inaccessible PDF and how those difficulties affect their everyday life.

“Actually, you guys out there think that normal people have the right to access your services and documents and products then please don’t be so arrogant to even think that people with disabilities do not deserve or want that access. And yes you can come to me if you want to discuss special cases like, ‘Why does a blind person want access to a photography site?’ Yeah, it happens. I had a student recently… ask me, ‘Why should computer game stuff be accessible for the blind?’ I told him there are blind people playing games. 

One of the responses you could think to offer would be what happens when blind people multiply themselves. I can demonstrate how that works… [laughs]  and then we have children and those might be sighted…  and then they want to play computer games. And how am I as a blind father know which games are suitable for my child except for going to computer games of PK and looking it up myself? That would be one.

But I’m actually tired of playing the blindness missionary and explaining why I need everything. So the simple reason is, if you want people to access your content, so you want people with disabilities to access it as well. Finito.”


All PDF elements must be digitally tagged for assistive technology users

Just providing the PDF document isn’t enough. It must be made accessible. Tag headings to allow a person using assistive technology to navigate a large document rather than having to read through 50 pages to find the section of interest. Provide descriptive and contextual alt-text for images, graphs, charts, and infographics.  Make all links descriptive and functional. Correctly tag lists and tables so they are not a string of words, but so that the relationship between the various elements is clear. Provide tooltips for form fields so it is clear what information needs to be input, and in what format. 

 A statement from the last quote bears repeating: “If you want people to access your content, you want people with disabilities to access it as well.” 

Want to learn more about making PDFs accessible? Contact us for a free demonstration of our best-in-class PDF accessibility software.


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Tammy Albee

Tammy Albee | Director of Marketing | Equidox Tammy joined Equidox after four years of 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."

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