No Fuss Accessibility

By Antonio DaSilva

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This article describes how you can quickly and easily create documents with enhanced accessibility options for vision-impaired users using Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat.


Click a link below to jump to a particular section; click any "CONTENTS" image following a section heading to jump back here.

A Trillion Reasons to Care    Link to the review contents

There's change afoot; on that we can all agree. And, no matter where you fall on (or off) the political spectrum, President Obama's proposal to spend a trillion or more dollars to support the ailing U.S. economy is a done deal. From bridges to broadband, companies large and small are lining up for a share of the stimulus pie.

Consider Obama's proposal to modernize health care by making all health records standardized and electronic within five years. This effort alone is expected to cost upwards of 100 million dollars, according to independent studies from Harvard, RAND and the Commonwealth Fund. While projects like this will certainly provide opportunities for technical communication professionals, those possessing the right mix of skills and experience will benefit first and most. According to a recent story in, "the country suffers a dearth of skilled workers necessary to build and implement the necessary technology."

One important skill sure to set you apart from the herd, especially on U.S. government-related projects, is knowledge of Section 508 and accessibility of electronic information. Section 508 refers to specific parts of the "Rehabilitation Act of 1973" requiring Federal agencies and companies doing business on their behalf to provide Federal employees and members of the public with disabilities access to electronic information that is comparable to what is available for persons without disabilities.

"So what," you say? "I'm not a Federal employee. Why should I care?" Well, let me give you a trillion reasons. Even if you don't work for the government directly, you might be employed (or soon looking to be) by one of the many contractors who perform services for the government. If you are, Section 508 and accessibility should be important to you. The law requires that "electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by agencies directly or used by a contractor under a contract" provide accessibility for the disabled. In a tight job market, building expertise in creating accessible information can give you the edge over other candidates.

Before we learn more about creating accessible documents, it's important to talk about the choice of tools this document highlights. While many authoring environments support accessibility, I chose to concentrate on Word and Acrobat in this presentation because of their ubiquity, particularly in the government space. PDF has been tops in the annual WritersUA tools survey for several years running, and there are few PCs on the desktops of government full-timers and contractors that do not have a copy of Word installed. While providing for accessibility might make good business sense, only the government mandates that the information it develops is 508 compliant. Like it or not, Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat are pretty much the default options for many of us, and it's for these reasons I chose to keep the focus on Word and Acrobat (specifically, Word 2003 and Acrobat Professional 7).

"Good Documents" are Accessible Documents    Link to the review contents

While issues of Section 508 law and its application can be quite heady, creating accessible information doesn't have to be rocket science. In fact, "good documents," meaning those that are logically ordered and employ effective headings based on consistently applied paragraph styles, make for easily accessible documents.

You can convert a carefully prepared Word document into a PDF that needs a just a small amount of effort to meet Section 508 compliance requirements. To minimize editing work in Acrobat, keep these key points in mind when first creating your information:

  • Logical Reading Order: The single most important issue to consider when creating accessible information is the order in which a screen-reader application traverses the document. This is especially important for multi-column text, such as you might find in a magazine or newsletter. Unless the screen reader can easily determine which paragraphs are to be read in the appropriate order, your text may not be delivered correctly.
  • Headings and Navigation: As with most documents, providing a table of contents whose elements correspond to logically organized document headings helps all users locate the information they want. Consistent use of styles is critical to creating accessible documents. You can use Word's built-in styles, or create your own, so long as you apply them logically and consistently to structure the document's organization.
  • Alternate Text Descriptions for Images: Give images alternate text descriptions to enable screen-readers to deliver the description to the user. Alternate text should be brief; at most, a descriptive sentence or two. To add alternate text to an image in Word, you right-click the image you want and choose the Format Picture/Web tab. From here, you simply type the alternative text you want and click OK.
  • Tables: Data tables can vex the most sophisticated readers, so be sure to use table headers for all tables.
  • Lists: When creating unordered and numbered lists, avoid "hand numbered" lists and rely on Word's list functionality.
  • Links: If your document includes links, carefully phrase the text you want to render as a link with the goal of helping readers understand your meaning in whatever context they approach the information. Link text like "click here to learn more about Social Security" is infinitely preferable to link text such as "click here."
  • Document Language: In cases where localization and translation are important, indicating the document language can assist some screen-reader applications.

Press the Button    Link to the review contents

Once you finish creating your source document, review it to be sure that it flows logically, that all images have alternate text, and that your tables, lists and links are formatted appropriately. Remember, the more effort you put into creating a "good" source document the easier time you'll have in making it fully accessible.

Before you click the Convert to Adobe PDF button on the toolbar, be sure Acrobat is configured properly. You do this in Microsoft Word by ensuring the Word to PDF tagging option is enabled in the Adobe PDF Maker dialog box. I'm using Word 2003, but the procedure is similar in more recent versions of the application.

To ensure Word is configured properly, click the Adobe PDF menu and choose the Change Conversion Settings option. Word displays the Adobe PDFMaker dialog box.

Figure 1: Adobe PDFMaker dialog box

Display the Settings tab and make sure that the Enable accessibility and reflow with Tagged PDF option is active. This option ensures the PDF retains meta-information about the document, including your alternative text, and also ensures reflow. Enabling reflow options allows users of structured PDF documents to resize text to fit the width of the available screen, making it easier for sight impaired users to view magnified content.

If you use PDF security, be sure to check Enable text access for screen-reader devices on the Security tab. To restrict unauthorized copying and printing of PDF files, you can set security to use encryption. While doing so protects your document from copying or extraction, it also renders the document inaccessible to most assistive technologies. By choosing this option, you can prevent unauthorized copying of your content while providing accessibility to users that require it. When you are finished, click OK to close the dialog box.

Now you are ready to create the PDF. Simply click the Convert to Adobe PDF button on the toolbar, or choose the option from the Adobe PDF menu. Acrobat converts the document to PDF and automatically opens it in the Acrobat window.

Figure 2: Converted PDF file displayed in Acrobat

That's It, Right?    Link to the review contents

That's it, right? Well, not exactly. While Acrobat provides you with a number of tools to check the document's accessibility, these tools serve more as an overview rather than the last word on your document's compliance. You'll need to run Acrobat's accessibility checker to get a sense of how successfully you've enabled accessibility in the document. It's also likely that you'll have to perform additional editing in Acrobat to enable the fullest range of accessibility.

But even with all these tools, how can you know for sure that document is accessible? For a PDF to be considered accessible, it must have the following characteristics:

  • Contain properly assigned tags.
  • Provide a logical reading and tab order.
  • Include alternative text for all images and objects.
  • Indicate a specific language.
  • Contain bookmarks linked to the sections of the document.

So how do we know if your document is 508 compliant? You can have a reasonable assurance that your document is accessible if you can answer "yes" to the following questions:

  • Does your document contain text, or is it a scanned graphic?
  • Is your content organized in a logical reading order?
  • Do tabbed elements follow a logical tab order?
  • Have you tagged the document to define its structure?
  • Do all images, objects and form fields include alternative text?
  • Are data tables marked with Column and Row header tags?
  • Are elements you want screen readers to ignore tagged as artifacts?
  • Are hyperlinks active and linked to the right place?
  • Are bookmarks labeled and linked to the right place?

In the end, there's only one way to know your document will be useful to audiences using assistive technologies. You're going to need to test the document and remediate any issues you encounter. While Acrobat Professional includes a number of tools to test the document's accessibility, these serve more as an overview rather than the last word on your document's compliance. You'll need to run Acrobat's accessibility checker to get a sense of how successfully you've enabled accessibility in the document. It's also likely that you'll have to perform additional editing in Acrobat to enable the fullest range of accessibility.

You have two options with regard to automatic accessibility testing with Acrobat. The Quick Check tells you whether or not the file has tags, and little else. It doesn't even identify fundamental compliance issues, like missing alternate text. The Full Check gives you enhanced options, like identifying missing alternate text and offers hints remediating errors.

To run a Full Check, choose Accessibility from the Advanced menu and click Quick Check. Acrobat displays the Accessibility Full Check dialog box.

Figure 3: Accessibility Full Check dialog box

Click the Create Accessibility Report check box, and then click Choose to save the report to the same folder as your PDF document. You can also click the Select Include repair hints in Accessibility Report check box and the Select All button in the Checking Range group to ensure that Acrobat runs all available accessibility tests on your PDF. When you are finished, click Start Checking to initiate the accessibility check.

Acrobat runs the accessibility checks. When it's finished, it displays a report detailing some of the issues with the document. You use this report as a guide map for fixing accessibility issues.

Figure 4: Accessibility Report example

The Easy Bits    Link to the review contents

I admit that I've never much enjoyed testing. I look at it as one of those necessary things that's best done and out of the way, like taxes or invasive medical procedures. I find I'm better able to get through it all if I can build up a little momentum, so I generally start with the easy bits first.

As for testing PDF accessibility, the first and easiest part of the process is to check the Document Properties. Here, your goal is to ensure that the assistive technology your users employ can consume your document without incident. We're primarily concerned with ensuring the screen reader will

  • present the document's title as you intend,
  • read the document in the correct language,
  • open the PDF file with the display options it requires to operate properly, and
  • consume the PDF without incident.

To check the document properties in Acrobat, click the File menu and choose Document Properties, or press the Ctrl + D keys. Acrobat displays the Document Properties dialog.

Figure 5: Document Properties dialog box

On the Description tab, make sure that the document's title displays as you intend in the Title field. Word usually takes the first sentence of a document as its title, and unless you think to change this option in Word's Properties dialog, the information will migrate over to the PDF's Title property.

Next, click the Advanced tab and choose the language you want from the Language drop-down list. You'll find this option in the Reading Options group at the bottom of the dialog.

Figure 6: Selecting a language

Setting this option will ensure that the screen reader renders your document in the language you intend. And, no; choosing French will not make your document sound as if it's being read by Pepé Le Pew.

When you are finished, click the Initial View tab. Here you'll ensure that Acrobat displays the document in the manner required by the screen reader, and that it uses the document's title to identify it to the user. To set the display, click the drop-down list and choose Pages Panel and Page. To display the document's title on the Acrobat window, choose Document Title from the Show drop-down list in the Window Options group.

Figure 7: Displaying a document title

The last thing you'll do in the Document Properties dialog is clear any custom properties that might have been brought over from the source document. While this is an optional step, it's usually a good idea as it ensures that no extraneous information exists that might cause the screen reader to choke on your document.

To remove a custom property, click the Custom tab, choose the property you want, and click the Delete button.

Figure 8: Removing a custom property

When you are finished, click OK to close the Document Properties dialog box. Then, save the PDF to preserve your changes.

Tag, You're It    Link to the review contents

Now we're ready to get down and dirty with the markup. Like paragraph styles in Word or HTML tags on a web page, PDFs use tags to indicate a document's structural elements and how these elements relate to each other. Assistive technology like screen readers rely on tags as the sole means of accurately rendering a PDF's contents. If an item is not tagged, the reader will ignore it. If it's tagged incorrectly, the reader will present it incorrectly.

The easiest method of tagging documents is during the initial conversion process. You do this in Word by activating the Enable accessibility and reflow with Tagged PDF option in the Settings tab. This provides the best results, since Word uses the document's paragraph styles and other information to produce a relatively accurate set of tags. While it's possible to apply tags to an untagged PDF, this is the less preferable option as Acrobat cannot always interpret the document's elements; especially in the case of documents with complex layouts.

Acrobat displays a document's tags in a hierarchical tree format known as a tag tree, with angle brackets indicating the type of tag applied to a specific document element. The tag tree is contained within the Tags tab. To display the Tags tab, click the View menu, click Navigation Tabs, and then click Tags. Acrobat displays the Tags tab as a floating menu, but you can save screen real estate by dragging the Tags tab to the left side of the Acrobat window. And, just like folders in Windows Explorer, you can expand the hierarchical list of tabs by clicking the plus (+) sign for the tag you want.

Figure 9: Hierarchical list of document tags

You can see how the tags correspond to the various elements in the document by enabling the Highlight Content option, allowing you to interactively click on a tab and highlight its corresponding element on the Acrobat window.

To enable content highlighting, click the Options menu on the Tags tab and choose Highlight Content.

Figure 10: Enabling content highlighting

Now, as you click tags on the tag tree, Acrobat highlights the corresponding object in the document with a bounding box.

Revealing and highlighting tags enables you to display the document's reading order. By doing so, you can see the content flow in much the same way as it's presented to the screen reader. Providing for the proper arrangement and formatting of tags ensures that your content is delivered in the precise order and format you intend it to be read.

You can walk through the document as it would be presented by a screen reader by clicking the topmost tag on the tree and using the Arrow keys to navigate through the document. As you move up and down the tree, Acrobat highlights the corresponding elements in the document, enabling you to check the document's reading order. Acrobat's success in tagging your document depends largely on the complexity of your document's layout. In some cases, you'll have to manually edit the PDF tags to ensure your document's accessibility.

Editing PDF Tags    Link to the review contents

Acrobat provides you a number of options for editing PDF tags. You can perform the following tasks:

  • Change the tag type.
  • Reorder tags.
  • Apply alternative text to images.
  • Tag table elements as headers, rows and columns.

While Acrobat provides other options for editing PDF tags, these four basic options should give you the tools you need to remediate most of the errors you encounter in a typical business document. For a comprehensive take on Acrobat accessibility, refer to the document "Creating Accessible PDF Documents with Adobe Acrobat 7.0," available on the Acrobat web site.

Change the Tag Type

In the event you discover an incorrectly applied tag, you can correct the error manually by right-clicking the tag you want and choosing Properties. Acrobat displays the TouchUp Properties dialog box.

Figure 11: TouchUp Properties dialog box

To choose the correct tag, click the Type drop-down list on the Tag tab and choose the tag type you want. When you are finished, click OK.

Reorder Tags

To correct an improperly ordered tag, click the tag you want in the tag tree and drag the tag to the place you want in the tag hierarchy.

Figure 12: Changing tag order

While this is a quick way to adjust an element's reading order, things will quickly get out of hand when working with long, complex documents; particularly those with complex, nesting hierarchies. For these documents, the best method to adjust reading order is by using the Order tab.

To display the Order tab, click the View menu, click Navigation Panels and choose Order. Acrobat displays the Order tab as a floating window and you can drag the Order tab to the left side of the Acrobat window and group it with the other tabs.

Figure 13: Displaying the Order tab

The Order tab is similar to the Tags tab, but with a few important differences. Rather than displays the tags in a hierarchy, the Order tab lists each tag sequentially and organizes them by page. This allows for much easier reordering of tags, enabling you to simply click the tag you want and drag it to the correct reading order.

Apply Alternative Text to Images

You'll recall that along with reading order, another important characteristic of accessible PDF documents is alternative text for images and objects. Alternate text provides users employing assistive technologies with meaningful descriptions of a document's images.

Acrobat tags images with the <Inlineshape> tag and these can include such objects as figures, graphics, or shapes. In cases of objects without alternative text, Acrobat displays an X over the object's bounding box.

Figure 14: An image without alternative text

To add alternate text to the object, right-click its corresponding tag on the Tag tree and click Properties to display the TouchUp Properties dialog box. From here, it's a simple matter of typing the descriptive text you want in the Alternate Text box. Be sure that your alternate text is succinct, yet descriptive enough to help a visually impaired person understand the image and its relationship to the document. When you are finished, click OK to close the dialog box.

Tag Table Elements

The same virtues that make tables an effective method for presenting certain type of information also pose a challenge to users who rely on assistive technology. Tables present information vertically and horizontally and enable sighted users to quickly target the information they want. Screen readers present information in sequence and must traverse the table from left to right.

Tables without proper tagging are of little use to persons relying on screen readers. Unfortunately, of all the document elements, tables are often the most problematic for Acrobat to tag. That said, it's not such a difficult task to edit tags on tables of modest complexity.

The first step in editing table tags is to locate the table you want. Once you locate the table in the document, expand its corresponding <Table> element in the Tag tree to display the available child elements that comprise the table.

Figure 15: Table element options

Acrobat tags tables using familiar HTML-like markup:

  • <Table> - table
  • <TR> - row
  • <TH> - header
  • <TD> - cell

In the event Acrobat incorrectly tagged a table element, you can easily correct the error by right-clicking the tag you want and choosing Properties. Then, choose the tag you want from the Type drop-down list. When you are finished, click OK.

In addition to improperly assigned table tags, you may also encounter reading order issues. To traverse the table as it would be presented by a screen reader, simply expand the <Table> tag and use the Arrow keys to navigate through the table. Your goal is to ensure that the cells and rows are being read in the appropriate order, from left to right.

When you find a cell that is incorrectly ordered, you correct it in much the same way you did reading order for paragraph text. Simply click the tag you want and drag it to the correct order on the table.

Be sure that your table markup follows the correct hierarchy, with the <Table> element indicating the boundaries of the table, the <TR> element bounding table rows, the <TH> element indicating the rows which contain table header cells, and the actual data cells contained within <TD> elements.

Say It Loud    Link to the review contents

Now that you've edited tags to ensure your document's accessibility, there's still one more check you'll need to perform in Acrobat. You can use Acrobat's Read Out Loud feature to read your document. While Read Out Loud does not completely negate the necessity of feeding your document to a screen reader, it does a fairly good job testing how your document will be consumed by purpose-build screen readers.

To read your document out loud, open the page you want to read and press the Ctrl+Shift+V keys to read the current page, or Ctrl+Shift+B keys to read to the end of the document. To pause and resume reading, press the Ctrl+Shift+C keys. Click Ctrl+Shift+E to stop reading.

You should note that while Read Out Loud provides you a good audio rendering of the document, it's not a replacement for screen readers. The ultimate way of testing your document's accessibility is to use purpose-built screen readers such as JAWS, IBM Easy Web Browsing (EWB), and Window-Eyes as confirmation to the internal Acrobat reader. Your decision to do this level of testing will depend on a variety of factors, including the document's distribution, the available development time and your access to the necessary tools.

Conclusion    Link to the review contents

As you've learned, skill with creating accessible information is proving to be an important tool in the technical communicator's toolbox. If you've taken care to make sure that your document flows logically, that images have alternate text, and that your tables are rendered properly, the easier time you'll have in ensuring your PDF document is accessible to all users.

Links and Resources    Link to the review contents

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Web Communications & New Media Division link
HHS Section 508 Policy link
Federal Government 508 Website link
Adobe Accessibility Resource Center link
Microsoft Tutorials link
WebAIM PDF link
JAWS for Windows ® Screen Reading Software link
IBM Easy Web Browsing (EWB) link
Window-Eyes link

Antonio "Tony" DaSilva is a writer and trainer with sixteen years experience developing and delivering user assistance solutions. Tony has led the training and documentation efforts for a number of software development projects, and has developed UA materials for a variety of organizations, including ExecuTrain Corporation, McKesson, Unisys, CSC, SAIC and Northrop-Grumman.

Copyright © 2009 Antonio DaSilva, all rights reserved. This document is expressly NOT in the public domain and remains the sole property of Antonio DaSilva. Distribution or modification of this document without the author's expressed permission is strictly forbidden. Submission of this document by the author does not constitute permission.


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