September 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 5

Access Issues

The Conundrum of PDF Accessibility

Jennifer Sutton wanted to read her graduate school's online alumni newsletter, which is published as a PDF file. She sent the file to a URL that translated the file into text that was compatible with her screen reader. The bad news is that the page jumps for the various articles ran together in a single block of text. Reading it, Sutton recalls, required more concentration because of the irregular formatting.

For Curtis Chong, it was the desire to become more familiar with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) 1040 form, published on the IRS web site as a PDF file. Even with his latest version of screen-reading software, Chong was not able to fill out a 1040 form online. In frustration, he finally printed a hard copy and used a sighted reader to help him complete the form, which also required a handwritten signature.

What Is PDF?

Adobe Acrobat is a product that allows you to create and publish information in portable document format (PDF). Once published and made available on the Internet or on a product CD-ROM, PDF files can be read using the free Adobe Acrobat Reader. Because of its ability to be used on a variety of operating systems and to maintain the format of the print document, PDF has become a popular format in which companies distribute information about products, such as user manuals and troubleshooting guides. Many governmental agencies—such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education—also use PDFs to publish literature and forms.

Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 mandates, among other things, that all electronic information and technology products purchased or provided by a governmental agency must be accessible to people with disabilities; this mandate creates the conundrum of PDF accessibility. Many governmental agencies, publishers, and other providers of information have uploaded many documents on their web sites that are in PDF and hence inaccessible to users who are visually impaired or otherwise unable to read regular print. The accessibility gap, however, is narrowing for three reasons.

First, of course, is the fact that when Section 508 took effect in June 2001, issues of compliance by governmental agencies and sales to these agencies by vendors were catapulted to the fore. Second, in April 2002, AFB, partnering with National Industries for the Blind (NIB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB), authored a white paper calling attention to the accessibility issues involving PDF. The paper recommends that "accessible formats must always accompany PDF versions of information and data that are made available to the public." Third, these two documents have continued to raise awareness of a greater need for accessibility by Adobe in developing its authoring and reading tools, as well as by developers of screen readers.

"Have we been weak on accessibility? Absolutely," said Rick Brown, senior product manager for Adobe's Acrobat Reader. "When the format came out, accessibility was not considered."

"508 has accelerated the process of creating accessible PDF," adds Christy Hubbard, Adobe's government products marketing manager. "I think the technology industry is taking this issue seriously and is making tremendous strides."

While Adobe's PDF format and its free downloadable, Acrobat Reader, have been around for a decade or so, the unreadability factor was first brought to Adobe's attention in 1997 by the pioneering work of Adobe staffer T. V. Raman. Since the file format was not inherently accessible, Raman found a way to convert documents to text files. The reading technology still doesn't recognize columns and section continuations; thus, Jennifer Sutton's alumni newsletter was translatable into a text block, but a text block with no subdivisions that would make logical sense of the columns and spaces in the original layout.

The white paper, authored by Janina Sajka, AFB's director of technology research and development, and Joe Roeder, senior access technology specialist for NIB, prompted a meeting with Adobe. "We didn't want to get into dueling white papers," Brown said. "We wanted to get all issues out on the table, and I think we all came to a greater understanding of the issues faced by each side."

"PDF is a wonderful format for presenting read-only documents," says George Kerscher, who chairs the Open E-Book Forum and is Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic's executive on loan to the DAISY consortium. "PDF is just not accessible to people who use screen readers. Accessible PDF is an oxymoron."

"The future is how to communicate with someone using PDF with a screen reader," Brown notes. Adobe is working on reading software that would use more sophisticated logic in presenting information to an end user whose screen reader would automatically be detected. The software would then communicate directly with the end user via a dialogue box.

Brown and Hubbard are reluctant to discuss specifically when this software may be available from Adobe. Brown notes that customers prefer complete new programs in lieu of plug-ins and that the developmental cycle at Adobe is about 18–24 months. Furthermore, new software to enable authors to create accessible PDF forms is already in beta testing by some governmental agencies, Hubbard adds.

In addition, another Adobe plug-in product, Make Accessible, allows a text file to be created from a legacy PDF file by identifying structural intricacies that would stymie a screen reader, analogous to the way in which Bobby and similar testing tools identify inaccessibility features of a web site's design.

Current versions of PDF documents are supported by the latest versions of JAWS and Window-Eyes on systems using the latest version of Microsoft Active Accessibility. If you do not have a current version of either screen reader, you will not be able to read PDF files. Accessible forms will have to wait for a future generation of authoring and reading tools.

Freedom Scientific is offering a two-day course, Creating and Testing for Document Accessibility with HTML, Adobe and JAWS, at its St. Petersburg, Florida, corporate headquarters. The current version of JAWS has a utility that Kerscher, a long-time JAWS user, notes works well on simple documents but "fails horribly" on documents with margin notes, footnotes, and other complexities in structure.

Doug Geoffray, a principal of GW Micro, says that his company is working with Adobe on creating a way for end users to read forms with Window-Eyes yet maintain the secure, read-only status of these forms. He notes that Acrobat Reader 5.05 has smoothed out many of the glitches involved in using a screen reader to access PDF documents; the issue for Window-Eyes also remains with reading complex documents and forms.

A key component of the accessibility solution is the authoring tools—the software used to create the PDF document. Proper electronic tagging permits the reading software to make better guesses on layout and structure.

Section 508 does not apply retroactively; it covers only information created since June 2001, according to Doug Wakefield, chief architect of the 508 regulations and a senior technology specialist with the federal Access Board. "There's a lot of unreadable PDF out there. But I tell people that we didn't create these regs just for us; we created them for the generations coming after us." And, he notes, "the onus for accessibility is on the author of PDF documents."

Until authoring and reading tools of PDF catch up with each other—most authoring tools do not produce an accessible form of PDF—Kerscher recommends requesting documents in nonproprietary formats, such as XML or HTML, or in a more popular format, which is not guaranteed to be compatible across versions and platforms, such as Word. Referring to the source of the document, he advises, "Go upstream."

Meanwhile, as of this writing, Adobe is planning a workshop for the IRS in August to focus on design issues for accessible forms. AccessWorld will continue to cover developments on this critical access issue.

Requirements for Reading PDF

To read PDF files, you need Adobe Acrobat or Acrobat Reader version 5.0 or higher. The Acrobat Reader is available free of charge on Adobe's web site, <>. When downloading, make sure you select the version that includes search and accessibility features. On this web site, there is additional information about URLs that will translate PDF documents into text format. You also need the correct version of either JAWS for Windows or Window-Eyes. Window-Eyes 4.1 or later supports Acrobat and Acrobat Reader 5.0, as do version 3.71 and later versions of JAWS for Windows.

When using either Window-Eyes or JAWS for Windows, reading an accessible PDF file is similar to reading a web page. PDF files can contain text, graphics, forms, and links. Both screen readers let you simply use the arrow keys to move within the document and give you the ability to get a list of links within a document. In PDF documents, links take you to another part of the same document. Form fields allow you to enter information into the document. Once this information is filled in, the PDF document can be printed using Acrobat Reader.


Acrobat 5.0 FAQ [Online]. Available: <>.

Acrobat 5.0.5 update FAQ [Online]. Available: < >.

Sajka, J., & and Roeder, J. PDF and public documents: A white paper [Online]. Available:

Staff. (2002, April 24). Making PDFs accessible: The big picture [Online]. Available: <>.

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