By Shannon Kelly, Global Accessibility Solutions Subject Matter Expert, Actuate

How are you dealing with the challenge of accessibility? Chances are you are introducing more disability-friendly, infrastructure, HR and hiring policies and making your online presence more accessible.

However while your Web site may be up to date with all the accessibility standards, not all of your content, namely web delivered PDF documents, may be which could be a time bomb waiting to go off judging by experience in the United States.

For the visually impaired – especially those who use assistive technology software, such as screen readers – it’s important to have a website that is accessible, navigable, and usable, but what about bank statements, utility bills, tax notices or medical information, and so on?

In the past, visually impaired customers were prepared to wait for an accessible copy to be sent out separately. Not any more as the user community today is demanding the same level of access, at the same time, delivered digitally to handle their personal affairs, especially financial and health related matters This means they too want to use the Web to instantly access an Accessible PDF version of the latest information. Accessibility has moved off the Web page, in other words, and is now an issue for the PDF content organisations – public, private or Third Sector – give people.

Welcome to the era of true, 24x7 content democracy for everyone in the community.

Good business – all round

Offering accessible electronic documents allows visually-impaired customers to independently and accurately manage their own affairs without relying on sighted assistance. Just as sighted people now prefer to use computers and mobile devices rather than paper formats like Braille to manage their affairs, people with vision loss prefer to access information via computers and mobile devices. Promoting a positive user experience for those with disabilities is worth doing as a good corporate citizen, as well as to minimise the risk of legal repercussions. It is also good business policy since if you treat the customer well they will tell others as well as stay using you.

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. The Code of Practice: Rights of Access - Goods, Facilities, Services and Premises document published by the government's Equality and Human Rights Commission to accompany the Act refers explicitly to websites as one of the "services to the public" which should be considered covered by the Act.

Clearly, we want accessible content formats— and while information can be, and often is, made available via XML/HTML, HTML content just isn’t as portable as a PDF: customers have no ability to download and review and analyse the information, or use it as proof unless it is in document form. It seems whichever way you turn, it has to be Accessible PDF.

Moving from accessible as the exception to the rule

PDFs are the de facto standard for documents in the Digital Age. Today, most companies will be working to dovetail that PDF content creation closely with accessibility standards. But how will they ensure all of their e-delivered customer communications – statements, invoices and bills – are properly tagged and accessible PDFs?

Are they going to have someone go through each statement manually remediating the tag structure to the accessibility standards? That might be an acceptable approach if you are sending out 30, 300, or 3,000 statements in PDF, but what about 100,000 or a million?

It is simply not possible to ensure these ‘one to one,’ web-delivered PDFs meet accessibility requirements at that scale. PDF is the appropriate mechanism, but you need to be clear-eyed about how you will use the format at scale.

Automation is your best friend here

Organisations need technology to help them stand any chance of automating that process. First, apply a tagging structure at the sub-layer level to every PDF. Next, make certain the tag structure meets accessibility compliance standards and is validated and compliance tested to ensure compatibility and full usability with screen readers. Finally, do this at scale dependably and cost-effectively.

Until now, it simply hasn’t been possible for organisations to create accessible PDFs at scale. The good news is innovative software is now available that automates this process and really does help satisfy the legal requirement to provide accessible electronic content.

PDFs are the ideal way to deliver content to everyone. But to make that a reality, organisations need to get the accessibility process done at the enterprise level. The good news is new innovative software is now available that automates this process at the IT enterprise level where these high volumes of customer communication PDFs are generated. This revolution satisfies both the legal requirement and the visually impaired community’s requests. So long to expensive, manual PDF tagging and hello to scalable, affordable automated technology is now making high volume PDFs properly tagged and accessible – automatically.

Put simply, what is needed is the ability to create at the IT enterprise level, intelligent templates containing accessibility rules that get incorporated into the data or documents that flow through them, automatically generating fully accessible PDFs [1] in the millions, or more as needed. Of course it must also be a cost-effective solution for the mass output of these kinds of customer communication documents.

Organisations need to spend conscious effort to get this process right.
If they don’t, not only could you face legal risk but miss the opportunity to provide a satisfying experience for every customer, no matter what their ability.

[1] The standards as set by http://www.w3.org/standards/webdesign/accessibility