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Adobe Tackles Software Accessibility Issues

AccessWorld Solutions Helps Improve PDF Files

The technological developments in computer hardware and software over the last 25 years, beginning with the advent of affordable personal computers, have radically changed the world we live in by offering us more opportunities for manipulating and exchanging information. New digital technologies have perhaps been even more revolutionary for people who are blind or visually impaired. Devices like screen readers and computer braille interfaces, along with software languages such as HTML, have made a wealth of information available to people who are blind or visually impaired—information that was formerly "locked away" in the print medium or very expensive to produce in braille.

Adobe's Acrobat software package.

However, a "digital divide" has also accompanied these technological advancements. Although the software industry has come a long way, many developers still do not design products that are accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. Products that, for instance, rely almost wholly on the mouse for screen navigation instead of having keyboard command equivalents are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to use for someone who is blind or has low vision.

Until recently, Adobe Systems Incorporated's suite of AcrobatTM software products and the Portable Document Format (PDF) file, the file format associated with AcrobatTM, have represented a challenge to blind and visually impaired people. The problem stemmed from the inability of screen readers, or devices that present text on the computer monitor in audio, to completely and accurately read the PDF document. In fact, early versions of PDF files were, essentially, an electronic format with all of the limitations of print.

Addressing this important issue, the Adobe software design company recently set a positive example for the rest of the industry by committing to make its AcrobatTM software usable by everyone—sighted or visually impaired. To ensure the accessibility of AcrobatTM software for disabled users, Adobe asked AccessWorld Solutions (AWS), AFB's consulting arm, to evaluate the accessibility features of AcrobatTM software products. After thorough usability testing, AWS offered several recommendations for making PDF files more accessible to people with disabilities. These recommendations were incorporated into Acrobat 6.0.1TM, the latest version.

"Through a systematic process," said Jim Veltman, director, AFB AccessWorld Solutions, "the project team—made up of evaluators, marketing staff, product engineers, and Adobe management—were provided the opportunity for education, collaboration, and resolution of key accessibility issues. High priority barriers were recognized, and realistic, economically feasible solutions were developed."

AcrobatTM software products enable users to create, format, and read PDF files for a variety of purposes. More than 20 million documents are available using this format—an industry standard—on the World Wide Web, with more than two million on government web sites. PDFs are valued by corporations and institutions as a means of ensuring that documents look exactly the same, no matter what computer or web browser is used to view them. They are particularly useful when creating official or legal documents that may not be altered. With so much information being exchanged via PDF files, the accessibility of this particular file format is especially critical to people with disabilities. Moreover, by law, U.S. Government documents must be accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

AWS's many technical recommendations for Adobe Reader 6.0TM, free software that reads PDF files, and Acrobat 6.0 ProfessionalTM, software that creates and formats PDF files, included improving compatibility with screen readers and making keyboard substitutions for mouse-driven features. Low vision users will benefit from new features such as high magnification functions and adjustable high color contrasts.

Despite the many improvements that have been made, Acrobat 6.0.1TM and PDF files are still not perfectly accessible. Some problems may never be totally resolved, since many PDF documents were created several years ago on previous versions of AcrobatTM that lacked accessibility features. However, Adobe is committed to resolving all outstanding accessibility issues that are technically possible to fix.

With future releases of AcrobatTM, additional accessibility features will be introduced and enhanced. Software advancements are for everyone, sighted or visually impaired, and Adobe wants to make sure that the Information Age doesn't leave anyone behind.

Because PDF files are so popular and widely used, the improvements made to AcrobatTM will provide blind or visually impaired consumers with access to countless documents that were previously unavailable to them. This is good news for people who are blind or visually impaired, as well as for Adobe. The company stands to gain a new segment of users who will benefit from a more accessible and usable product.

Image Caption: Adobe's Acrobat software package.

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