Accessibility myth: PDF scans are accessible

  • Author: Tim Lohman
  • Date: 14 Oct 2014

Access iQ takes a look at a common myth about PDF accessibility—that it’s easy to scan a document, apply optical character recognition (OCR) and tagging to create an accessible PDF.

Access iQ has been busy lately training up organisations on Word and PDF accessibility.

One common theme that often came up in our training was around the belief that it was easy to make scans of PDFs or other documents, such as sales or marketing brochures, accessible.

Our answer was invariably,"no, it’s not easy. In fact it’s near impossible."

By way of example, we scanned a common one-page sales brochure with a logo, an image, a heading, sub-heading, some bullet points then a call to action and saved it as a PDF.

Opening that PDF in Adobe Acrobat Professional X we began by applying automatic tagging so that a screen reader, such as JAWS or NVDA, would be able to detect and read the elements of that brochure. The result? Acrobat tagged the entire document as a single figure.

So we applied two methods to add some manual tags to initially pick out the logo and document heading (H1). The result? Acrobat refused to apply the tagging, leaving us with a very inaccessible document.

The end result was that the only fix we could apply was to tag the entire document as an image (figure) and provide a very, very lengthy alternate text description for all the information contained in the document. A pretty unsatisfactory outcome.

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, just what can you do?

Well, one solution is to get in touch with the document’s designer and ensure that accessibility has been addressed in the design application — most commonly InDesign. If that’s not possible, then sourcing the original document (or recreating it) in Word and ensuring the appropriate accessible styling has been applied is required.

When the document is exported as a PDF (from either Word or InDesign) you’ll still need to check (and probably manually apply) the tagging of elements in the PDF to make sure they’re accessible.

If PDF accessibility is something your organisation is challenged by, then you should also consider contacting Access iQ.

While PDF is far from the ideal format for documents, the reality is that they will be with us for many years to come. That means making them accessible will also be an ongoing organisational need for years to come.