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PDF Accessibility Survey: Progress and Contradictions

Copyright © Alan Cantor 2007. All rights reserved.

Executive summary

In an e-mail survey conducted in September 2006, people with disabilities were asked to describe their experiences with the Portable Document Format (PDF). Respondents were asked to relate stories of, for example, PDF enhancing accessibility, and PDF causing access problems.

Almost 50 responses were received from people with a range of disabilities, content providers, and accessibility experts. In some cases, the researcher sought clarification by following up with respondents by telephone or e-mail.

In addition, researcher conducted a literature review on PDF accessibility, focusing on articles published within the last year.

Analysis of the data indicated that:

  • Properly tagged PDFs are fairly accessible to a wide range of people with disabilities.
  • Untagged PDFs may be accessible.
  • Navigating through PDFs without a mouse has improved in recent years.
  • Documentation and resources on how to create accessible PDFs are widely available.

Nevertheless, reliable access to PDFs remain elusive:

  1. Many people who use assistive technologies encounter inaccessible PDFs regularly.
  2. Although the tools, techniques, and resources to create fairly accessible PDFs exist, the gap between the potential for good accessibility and what happens in the field is very large.
  3. Some of the characteristics of PDF, such as visual fidelity and security settings, work against good accessibility. Because PDF was designed to assure identical visual experiences for all users, regardless of software installed on the computer, the format inherently makes information secondary to presentation.