PDFs and Website Accessibility – Part 2

Does your website have links to download PDF documents? Do you make a really sweet looking event calendar and upload it to your library website as a PDF?

Unless authored with accessibility in mind, PDF documents often have accessibility issues. Additionally, PDF documents are typically viewed using a separate application or plug-in, and can thus cause confusion and navigation difficulties.

PDFs are really just images made with the layout in mind. PDFs essentially make your computer act like a printer. It makes it easy to create nicely laid-out graphics. But, what you’re seeing in a PDF is not actually text,  just an image of text, a representation of text. This can cause accessibility issues for people with sensory impairments.

So when you load that awesome calendar with the clip art on certain days, you’re right, it will look great printed and hung on a bulletin board, but not so awesome accessibility-wise on the website.

A national survey of people who use screen readers found that “PDFs give a lot of people ‘significant’ accessibility problems.” If the document is able to be downloaded, Word documents are better. If it has to be a PDF, ensure the PDF document is accessible before you upload it and make a way for folks to download it. Check out the cheatsheet created by the National Center on Disabilities and Access to Education to find out more about creating natively accessible PDFs. Additionally, inform the user that the link will open a PDF document.

Because PDF documents may have limitations on accessibility (particularly for complex content) and require a separate program for accessibility, use the website for content. Content showing on a webpage directly is generally HTML content. If you can get away from using PDFs, it really makes your library website easier to access.

Let’s continue talking about the other things that content creators need to do to ensure accessibility. The main things we will examine in the next three posts of this series on accessibility are using ALT tags on images, descriptive link text, and the contrast and size of the text. Once we integrate best practices for accessibility into our everyday work online,  we can look at some further design aspects that can really make our websites a pleasure to use for everyone.

Kieran Hixon

Technology & Digital Initiatives Consultant at Colorado State Library
Contact Kieran at hixon_k@cde.state.co.us.
Kieran Hixon

Latest posts by Kieran Hixon (see all)