Myth busting #2: PDF is not an inherently inaccessible format

My previous post here (on automated PDF accessibility testing) could have been filed under the general category of “myth-busting”. So too can this one.

Earlier today I watched a video from a recent accessibility conference on the topic of making exam papers accessible in PDFs. Twice the speaker asserted that PDF is not a good format if you can’t see.

As someone who has made accessible more than 500 PDF-based GCSE papers (and literally thousands of other PDFs over many years), I feel compelled to challenge this assertion.

If you know how, most PDFs, including PDF-based exam papers can be made as accessible as content in any other format.

In the case of exam papers, it is certainly true that some Maths and most Chemistry papers can be challenging, sometimes highly so. It’s no secret that MathML support in PDF is scheduled for 2016, which will certainly help, but even this will not solve all the problems (probability tree, anyone?).

However, papers in many subjects, including English, History, Religious Education, Economics, Psychology, Politics, Physical Education and others, should present absolutely no problems whatsoever to blind people (as well as users of other assistive technologies), provided the document author knows what he or she is doing.

This means, of course, that appropriately labelled form fields are provided for candidates to input their answers, that headings, lists, tables etc are marked up properly, reading orders (plural) are correct, appropriate navigation is provided, colour contrast is sufficient (and customizable if required), images have appropriate alt text, internal links inherit zoom, and so on. All of this is simply bread and butter stuff to any experienced practitioner.

The idea that PDF is inherently inaccessible seems to crop up quite regularly. But it is simply another myth that needs to be busted as it can actually hold back progress: if people believe it’s not possible, they won’t try.

It is possible, and in many cases, actually quite straightforward. The real problem is a dearth of relevant skills and know-how.

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