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The Australian Government's study into the Accessibility of the Portable Document Format for people with a disability

Phase one: user consultation – the user perspective

A series of user consultations were conducted to establish the specific issues and experiences of people with a disability using PDF files. Feedback was sought via focus groups (three sessions) managed by Vision Australia and a public online consultation managed by AGIMO.

Focus Groups

The focus groups aimed to elicit feedback from the blind and low vision community, as they are considered to experience the most significant issues with PDF files. Focus groups were made up of users with low vision or blindness, who self-classified their level of IT and internet experience as low, medium or high. The focus groups sought to determine:

Encountering PDF files

Participants encountered PDF documents from a wide variety of sources including government, banks, telecommunication companies, restaurants, education providers and real estate agents. The need to interact with PDF files commonly occurred in activities related to their work and personal affairs where the use of the format is often deemed unnecessary by the participants. In many situations, participants had difficulty understanding why a different document type was not used (i.e. supplying menus and newsletters only as PDF files). Participants expressed the view that organisations appear to be providing information in PDF files with no awareness or acknowledgement of the accessibility issues it may cause for others.

Overall, participants had negative experiences when encountering PDF files in all of these situations.

Problems using PDF files

People who are blind or have low vision experience a number of problems when accessing and interacting with PDF files. The visual design and layout of documents presents screen reader users with obstacles. People in all three focus groups commented on the issues around multi-column design. In these situations, a screen reader will, rather than read each column in the correct order, generally read along the top line of both columns, then to each subsequent line of both columns, thus fragmenting the information and making the content incomprehensible.

The more experienced participants expressed the view that content authors who fail to provide structural mark up and appropriate tags for textual content, tables, forms, images and graphs are partially the cause of this problem. Less experienced users did not understand the cause of these problems.

Participants who were blind reported that a document scanned and saved as a PDF file cannot interact with their screen reader, as it is an image and thereby inaccessible to them. Scanned documents also pose issues for people using screen magnification software as the ability to view and read a scanned file is dependent on the quality of the scanned image. The quality of a scanned PDF file automatically deteriorates when magnified so that poor-quality scanned files are also unreadable for many low vision users.

Participants also noted that there is no way of knowing if a file had been created in an accessible way before downloading and opening it.

Workaround solutions

When using scanned PDF documents, participants reported having to use alternative methods to gain access to the content within the file. However, this was contingent upon having access to Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software and possessing the skill to use it. Other workarounds included asking for assistance from a sighted colleague/friend or asking the organisation to provide the information in an alternative format.

Participants reported that alternative methods often enable them to access the content, but require a level of expertise with additional software, more time and extra effort. The use of workarounds to access inaccessible PDF files results in a degraded experience when compared to accessing equivalent documents in HTML, RTF or Microsoft Word formats.

Assistive technologies and PDF files

Participants noted older screen readers and Adobe Reader did not work effectively. However, their experiences with recent versions of these technologies indicate a noticeable improvement.

Some participants expressed that, in their experience, the support for PDF files by portable devices, such as portable Braille Notetakers and the VictorReader Stream (DAISY player), is non-existent. Participants who used these technologies found this particularly frustrating as they are unable to read and interact with PDF documents through these devices.

Interaction with Adobe Reader

Participants acknowledged that Adobe Reader has improved its support for accessibility in later versions of the software. However, there are often issues with correct display of page numbers. For example, page numbers within a PDF document do not always correspond with the numbering assigned to the document by the Adobe Reader Page Navigation toolbar. Therefore, users are often not sure what page in a document they are actually on, leading to confusion and frustration, especially with long documents.

Participants reported that the Adobe Reader interface is an unfamiliar environment and they discussed their lack of knowledge on how to use it with their assistive technology. Adobe provides regular updates for the Adobe Reader, however the participants were not always aware of the benefits of these updates (i.e. why they should update) or how to update.

Public online consultation

AGIMO conducted a public consultation on the accessibility of PDF files to seek wider feedback from members of the public with a disability, disability organisations, industry, academia and government. Broad findings of the public consultation are considered as part of the Study. The consultation attracted 38 submissions from individuals, disability organisations, vendors of accessibility products and services and government organisations. Submission details are included in the Appendix.

Submissions covered a wide range of topics and many varied – often emotive – opinions. Of the 38 submissions, 80% of respondents did not support the use of PDF files, believing they create many accessibility problems for people with a disability. This was primarily evident in the submissions received by the organisations who represent people with a disability (100%) and by the majority of people who made personal submissions (60%). Most personal submissions were made by people with a disability and were based on their lived experience.

Interestingly, only 20% of the submissions provided support for the use of PDF files, claiming that they are accessible. However, all of the submissions made by people who work in the field of web accessibility provided conditional support for the use of PDF files if used appropriately, created accessibly and tested properly.

The submissions received from government agencies also varied, but did not provide categorical support for the use of PDF files. In fact, the majority of the government submissions noted that the use of PDF files was prolific and not always appropriate, but noted the Portable Document Format was preferred over other formats. Each submission also raised the need for updated and specific guidance on the use of PDF files and how to create them more accessibly.

Overall, the online consultation provided insight into the level of misinformation about the accessibility of the Portable Document Format. It also highlighted that much of the misinformation that exists is largely based on: personal preference, anecdotes, outdated information, and incorrect interpretations of published materials. The submissions also indicate there is a lack of knowledge about when to use the Portable Document Format, how to author or create more accessible PDF documents, how to validate the accessibility of a PDF file and of the impact that poorly-created PDF files have on people with a disability.

Notwithstanding the very important contributions from people who have a disability, it is difficult to balance the technical claims of PDF accessibility against the actual experience of the persons interacting with the file. This confirms the critical role that user testing must play in the development of accessible web content.


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Last Modified: 25 November, 2010