Setting the Standards for PDF Accessibility

The PDF (Portable Document Format) was developed in 1993 by Adobe Systems so that files could be exchanged between users without losing the formatting added by the developer of the document.  Many people (including those on the UIC campus) use the PDF format for exchanging forms and other formatted documents. The PDF file format was a proprietary format by Adobe until it became an open standard and published by the International Organization for Standardization in 2008.  Even though Adobe Systems is still strongly associated with the file format due to the fact it is still distributing free PDF reading software (Adobe Reader X is the most current version), the file format is an open standard used now by many companies including Microsoft.

PDF file format also has had a history of being inaccessible to people with disabilities. Due to its graphical nature, the PDF file format could not be read by assistive technology including screen readers when it was first developed in 1993.  With the release of Adobe Reader 5.0 in 2001, the file format began becoming more accessible with the ability to have the underlying text read with assistive technology through a tagging structure.

Even though the PDF file format started becoming more accessible in 2001, standards for its accessibility have been missing until recently.  Without a specific set of standards for accessibility, many assistive technology users were still finding the file format not user friendly.  The International Organization for Standardization has a working group that is creating accessibility standards for the PDF file format that are similar to the standards for HTML accessibility including the new WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards. The PDF Universal Accessibility (PDF/UA) Committee is actively working on these standards so individual developers, PDF generators, and PDF viewing agents can use these standards to ensure PDF files are accessible for people with disabilities.  Of course, these PDF/UA standards are similar to HTML accessibility standards and implementing the standards are left to the discretion of the PDF developer and the PDF creation tool.

The standards are not for lay developers of PDF files because they are very technical and can be difficult for some to understand.  But the important thing to note is that when you are developing PDF files using tools,  make sure the PDF tools you buy and use  support PDF/UA.  You will no longer have to shut out the needs of people with disabilities in the development of your PDF file if you use PDF/UA accessibility standards.

More information on PDF/UA and its development

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