Millions of US citizens must use assistive technology (AT) to read electronic content. A decade ago this month, the US Federal government’s Section 508 regulations went into effect to ensure equal access to information. Just as intended, the regulations – applicable to both the Federal government and its contractors – accelerated commercial activity around meeting the needs of disabled users.
10 years later, it’s time to reflect, both on how far we’ve come and on some of the little surprises along the way.
Back then, we were the first company worldwide to offer accessibility services and Section 508 compliance for PDF documents. We started tagging PDF files in 1999, when Adobe Systems gave us a sneak peak at the new accessibility tools in Acrobat 5. We’d studied WCAG 1.0, established methodologies, written a best-practice manual and found ways around (most) of the quirks and bugs that littered those first-generation tools.
That June, we expected the phone to ring off the hook – it didn’t. We learned a key lesson about Federal regulations: It takes time for people to notice, consider, respond and begin to act. We began an aggressive campaign of articles and seminars highlighting Section 508 and how it impacts PDF documents – not just web pages. This fact was by no means obvious to those implementing the regulations.
Section 508 was based on WCAG 1.0, which assumed that all web-based content was HTML and ignored other technologies. Since PDF documents are generally created by end-users with little or no understanding of accessibility, few content managers thought to take responsibility for the PDFs posted on their websites (see Why PDF is a Black Box for Content Managers).
Within a few months, the calls and emails began. We took in existing PDF files, added (and corrected) tags and tested the results with assistive technology devices including screen-readers. Education was key. Today, no one doubts that all documents posted on Federal websites, whether HTML, PDF, DOC or other, must comply with Section 508.
The ten years since the Section 508 regulations went into effect have seen substantial progress towards ensuring universal access to electronic content. For one thing, it’s no longer just a Federal government objective. As intended, the regulations spawned not only technological innovations, but a wide variety of similar regulations worldwide. For end users, none of it can come fast enough, and who can blame them for complaining? If you doubt the frustration and sense of 2nd class status that inaccessible PDF documents impose on blind, low vision, motor-impaired and other users, try reading a printed page that’s been through a shredder.
A key development of the last decade was the 2008 publication of WCAG 2.0, now considered “the law” for accessible electronic content by many organizations and agencies, and soon to be canonized in the forthcoming “refresh” of the original Section 508 regulations. WCAG 2.0 is avowedly technology-neutral; the concepts are applicable to all technologies, including PDF.
But how exactly does WCAG 2.0 apply to PDF? Written primarily to define PDF accessibility in software development terms, the forthcoming ISO 14289, better known as PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility) provides the technical answers to that question. Now at the “Draft International Standard” stage, PDF/UA will spawn the next generation of software for creating accessible final-form PDF documents and forms. The US and International Committees for ISO 14289 are now hard at work finishing the text of the Standard and writing implementation and best-practice guides to help developers, policy-makers and end-users ensure that their documents conform.
Accessible document technology still has a long way to go, no matter the format. These past ten years have seen significant progress, but much more is needed. When ISO 14289 is published (we expect it to go public in early 2012), progress will accelerate once again. The next 10 years should see an entirely new world of accessible PDF files and the software to create, modify and read them.
How We Can Help
Appligent Document Solutions continues to offer the Section 508 compliance and certification services for PDF files first developed by Document Solutions, Inc (now a part of Appligent Document Solutions). Get in touch with us to learn more about how we can make your PDF documents fully accessible.
by Duff Johnson