Will PDF survive the new EU accessibility regulations?

Person putting PDF document in the binIn July the Government Digital Service (GDS) wrote a blog post on why they use HTML instead of PDF. This post generated a large response on Twitter and on their blogpost through comments. There was so much response that GDS added an update to clarify some of their reasoning and took the time to respond to many of the comments.

With the EU accessibility regulations coming into effect on 23rd September we know that more than ever Government departments will be referring to the advice of GDS on what they should be doing. As a provider of digital inclusion services, and with one of our services being accessible PDF’s we were intrigued by the blog post.

Some of what GDS were saying makes sense; HTML has strengths where PDF can’t compete on mobile devices. HTML will automatically adapt to screens of different sizes, including mobile devices and in different orientations, PDF does struggle on mobile devices.

Most crucially however is that GDS feel PDF files are harder to make accessible and this can mean that key parts of a website may have limited accessibility features or none.

This point we disagree on!

The PDF/UA logo

PDF files have their merits and uses. Since their creation in the mid 1990s, PDF has helped make sure that format sensitive data can be sent from one user to another and it will look the same. If you want to make sure that your annual report, press release or exam paper is identical between devices and when printed onto paper, then PDF is a great method to accomplish this.

When we talk about digital accessibility the WCAG 2.1 guidelines come to mind. PDF’s however have their own accessibility guidelines, known more widely as PDF/UA which have an ISO standard ISO 14289.

Many of the recommendations are very similar to the WCAG 2.1 guidelines, such as colour contrast, alternative text on images, structure, headings and language settings are common across both guidelines – the thing that separates the guidelines is the how.

To create a WCAG 2.1 compliant website you need a developer that understands the standard (or a helpful Dig Inclusion consultant advising you on issues and solutions); to create an accessible PDF you need a designer (or a helpful Dig Inclusion consultant).

The Pensions Regulator logo

At Dig Inclusion the way we approach PDF accessibility is different to websites. For a website we report on the issue, the impact on a user and a proposed solution. For PDFs it’s actually more cost effective for us to take your PDF and deliver back an accessible version. We’ve done this for The Pensions Regulator as well as many other customers.

To us, the issues of PDF accessibility doesn’t mean we should never use them. Instead the focus should be on what is the best format for the information you want to convey? Is this a document that will not change and for legal reasons must be kept for a certain amount of years, like an annual report or financial document? In which case PDF will always be the obvious choice and we’re not the only ones who think this.

Most of the comments on the GDS blog post were from individuals and teams who use PDFs on a regular basis and can see their merits over their disadvantages. Councils, for example, may have online PDF versions of the leaflets they have sent to residents, and having an online version saves them time and money.

Whatever your choice, HTML or PDF, its important that they are accessible to make sure that all users can understand, interact and use the files as they are were intended. From 23rd September 2018 the EU accessibility regulations become law and .gov organisations have two years to ensure any downloadable content on an existing website are accessible. The Pensions Regulator customer story is a great example of how Dig Inclusion can help you with your historical data.

Dig Inclusion can help you make sure the whole of your website, including downloadable content such as PDF files, are accessible for all. Feel free to contact us to learn how we can help.