From monster to mouse: a content strategy for inaccessible PDFs

From monster to mouse: a content strategy for inaccessible PDFs

The internet is awash with billions of PDFs, and most of them are old, outdated and inaccessible to people with disabilities.

PDF is a deceptively easy way to publish online. Maybe that's why, in the past, government agencies published far too many PDFs. Most of those old PDFs were badly made and are inaccessible. That's because old software could not create accessible PDFs. That has changed!

Nowadays most government websites must comply with accessibility laws, making official information including PDFs easily available to everyone, regardless of their abilities. PDF/Universal Accessibility (PDF/UA, formerly ISO Standard 14289) sets out document accessibility requirements.

So what makes a PDF inaccessible to people using assistive technology? 

People with disabilities may need special hardware and software — assistive technologies — to access the information in a PDF. Screenreaders, text-to-braille readers, screen magnifiers and keyboard commands cannot work unless PDFs are methodically constructed using an accessible document template. These tools simply cannot detect and logically interpret the contents of inaccessible PDFs. These tools may even 'read' old PDFs as having no contents or as completely empty. 

Your government may approve the use of PDF, when certain things are more important than accessibility, for example when legal or security reasons must prevail. But use of PDFs, without an HTML alternative, should be the exception, not the rule for public information.

So, you understand the obligation to make all your shiny new PDFs accessible. And of course, you'll make it your mission to make beautiful, accessible PDFs, when PDF format is appropriate.

But what to do with all those old PDFs on your website?

You can't convert them all into accessible PDFs. That could take years! And it's not a good use of your resources. 

You could put your head in the sand and pretend the problem does not exist.

But that's not what a content hero, who creates positive user experiences and cares about accessibility, would do.

A content hero would confront the monster and break the problem down into manageable pieces. 

Here's a simple content strategy for your PDFs

First, scope your PDF problem

It will feel good to confront the monster.

How many PDFs do you have on your website? 

Now let's look at your visitor analytics and see which PDFs have actually been used and downloaded in the last 24 months.

Wow, did the monster start to shrink? I bet it did.

Now talk to the people who own your PDFs. Share the usage statistics with them and find out whether their PDFs are still needed online. 

Then classify each PDF: low, medium or high priority

Low priority PDFs

Nobody needs them. Nobody reads them. Analytics show that certain PDFs have not been downloaded for years — or ever. 

Take clear action: Remove them from your website and archive them.

I wonder if anyone will miss them.

In my experience, the answer is no. Not even the PDF owner tends to notice.

Medium priority PDFs

These PDFs do not need to be available online, so you can remove them from the website and archive them elsewhere.

But first, patch them!

Add Properties and fix their file names.

If PDFs are named mysteriously, they are very difficult to find.

Rename those PDF files with a clear, descriptive name that makes sense to anyone — not just to a codebreaker or the original author. Then archive them.

Now you have probably dealt with 80% of your legacy PDFs.

Lovely. The monster is beginning to look more like a mouse.

High-priority PDFs

High-priority PDFs must remain in PDF format online and must be accessible.

But wait!

Ask yourself: is PDF really the best format for this content? 

Can the content be turned into one or more web pages? Usually, an HTML web page is more accessible than any PDF — even the best!

And it is generally much easier to create and maintain a series of accessible web pages.

Okay, so now you have a manageable number of high priority PDFs that must remain online.

Problem is they are not accessible — yet you are expected to make them accessible, sometimes without changing any part of their substance.

Maybe they were signed off by a committee. Maybe they are legal documents, or policy statements, or papers presented at a conference. For whatever reason, you may not change the content.

Instead, upgrade these high-priority PDFs by doing whatever is permissible and feasible.

For each high priority PDF, decide if you have time for:

  1. an accessibility upgrade: Find the original doc and creating a fully accessible PDF, OR
  2. a selective accessibility boost: Focus on the few things with maximum impact on accessibility: fixing styles, document properties, file naming, file size and publishing online in line with WCAG 2.2 guidelines.

Ah good, you really have tamed your monstrous PDF problem. 

Want to learn how to make accessible PDFs?

In our course for content creators and editors, on how to make accessible PDFs, we show you the steps for:

  1. constructing a fit-for-purpose document template
  2. avoiding accessibility pitfalls when using your template
  3. converting your final document into an accessible PDF,
  4. checking your PDF is indeed accessible, and
  5. publishing that PDF online so it meets WCAG guidelines
  6. what to do with legacy PDFs.

WCAG and PDF accessibility course curriculum (30% off in March 2024)



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