Thinking about Electronic Document Accessibility

Alexis Boytsov November 30, 2021

The internet has transformed everything from research to making restaurant reservations. But despite easing everyday tasks for many people, the Internet adds a new level of complexity for accessibility and inclusion. Just as various disabilities can affect the way individuals experience life, they also may determine how a person can benefit from this relatively new technology that now permeates almost every aspect of life.

A More Universal Approach

Imagine a local business rolling out its website to showcase its selection of goods and services. In itself, this seems like a step towards making those products more accessible to everyone. However, it can be a hurdle for users with certain disabilities: If the product images have no alt text or descriptions attached, a visually impaired user may find them to be completely unhelpful—their screen reader software will tell them there is an image but not whether it’s an image of the product, a decorative border, or a piece of clip art. A video might make for a quick, attention-grabbing way to promote a sale, but if it contains no captioning, then a hearing-impaired user will find it useless.

Creating Accessible Documents

This goes beyond images and videos, of course. The very way that pages or files are constructed can determine whether they are accessible. When a sighted user approaches a PDF file, they can quickly peruse it as they would a page in a book to find the salient parts. But looking for a statistic in an untagged 100-page document can turn a momentary task for a sighted user into the equivalent of hunting for the proverbial needle in the haystack if the PDF is not tagged correctly. In order to make the information accessible, the document should have an appropriate tag attached to each element to. If completely untagged, a long report will present itself to a screen reader as a pile of text that has to be read start to finish, making that statistic elusive unless it happens to be on the first page. On the other hand, if the document contains appropriate tags and reading order, the same screen reader will allow the user to flip through text headings the same way a sighted user may glance over headings to find the one that contains the information they want. The screen reader will also have features so the user can jump back and forth within the file, instead of having to go through the entire thing in order.

Just a few examples of fixes that can make files make sense to everyone include:

  • Adding heading tags to text marking the beginning of a section
  • Making sure each paragraph is within its own tag so the paragraphs don’t run together
  • Making sure hyperlinks are clearly labeled so a user knows exactly where they lead—hearing a full URL is not as helpful as hearing a simple title or description
  • Tagging bulleted lists correctly so a user can skim them, going from bullet to bullet instead of listening to the entire list as a block of text in which the elements are impossible to separate

A More Inclusive Digital World

Making the digital world, from entertaining content on the Internet to the data we use at work, accessible and useful to all starts with recognizing that there is more than one way to convey information. Just as some people are visual learners while others understand better through listening or doing, adding flexibility to content presentation can help it communicate more clearly and be useful for as many people as possible. This can be a daunting task at first. The way to best achieve accessibility can depend on your specific software (whether it’s Word, or Adobe Acrobat, something else). It requires changing habits and learning new ways to put together files, but it gets easier and faster with practice.

If you don’t want to go it alone, note that some organizations offer remediation services, working with files or web pages to fix them. Also, new solutions for remediation are being devised, using machine learning to speed up and automate the process of tagging documents.