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Re: PDFs that read one word per line


From: Cliff Tyllick
Date: Feb 1, 2010 2:00PM

Mike Langum says:

>The key is to ensure that authors (usually in MS Word) are properly trained in:
>* the use of word styles (to set heading levels),
>* adding column head structure to tables,
>* adding alternate text to graphics images,
>* avoiding text boxes (if possible)

Cliff replies:
I've been waiting for someone to point this out. I, for one, am highly frustrated and incredibly dissatisfied with the training generally offered for Office products. For example, Microsoft offers Word training online. Most training courses I have seen so far follow the syllabus laid out by Microsoft, which is something like this:

Lesson 1: Type, cut, and paste.
Lesson 2: Change the way some of your text looks.
Lesson 3: Use the paintbrush to copy that appearance and reproduce it somewhere else.
Lesson 4: Add some pictures!
And so on.

In other words, it's as if they are training us to take this powerful word processor and use it like an eight-pack of Crayolas, a pot of paste, and a pair of safety scissors. Is it any wonder that someone who learned how to use Word from this training does not routinely create accessible documents?

Another thing: If you skip ahead to Microsoft's lesson about tables, in the introduction to that lesson you will find this statement:

"A Word table is something you can add to your document to help organize text and other content on a page. It's simply a container that works very much like a closet organizer or that tray in your silverware drawer: it provides separate spaces for your important items so that things are easy to find, visually appealing, and don't feel overcrowded."

Oh, really?

At our agency, out of frustration and lack of any other options, we are developing our own Word training, "Creating Accessible Documents in Word: The Basics." Our course takes this approach:

Lesson 0: Use plain English. (But that's another course. Take it, too.)
Lesson 1: Headings, outlines, and the document map
Lesson 2: Using and choosing templates
Lesson 3: Why not to use "Normal." For anything. Ever.
Lesson 4: Getting control of lists
Lesson 5: Meaningful Links
Lesson 6: Tables, Figures, and Other Nontext Elements. We cover this at a very basic level: "Never, ever, use a text box. Never, ever use 'Draw Table.' Before you create a table, make sure a table is the right choice. When it is, make it no more complex than necessary. Finally, make sure the information in tables, meaningful illustrations, and other significant nontext elements is also conveyed in the text itself. If that isn't possible, get help from someone who has completed the advanced course."

In the advanced course, we will cover modifying styles, creating templates, redesigning overly complex tables (our employees need a lot of practice at this), linking to alternate formats (think "tables in html"), adding "alt" text, and any topics suggested by the students from their own personal experience.

But these courses are not quite enough. We also have to deal with Word's unusable-for-creating-accessible documents interface. Because a number of our computers are too old to run Windows 7, we are still using Word 2003, where the default interface includes Word's Standard and Formatting toolbars. These toolbars have umpteen buttons that lead away from accessibility and only three buttons that lead toward accessibility. Those three buttons are anything but prominently featured:
* One, located way off at the left end of the Formatting toolbar, opens the Styles and Formatting task pane. If you make the effort to set this task pane up properly, it can help you create well-structured documents.
* Another button, found at middle left of the Standard toolbar, opens the Document Map. This feature shows you whether Word can recognize the structure that you think you have created.
* The third button is way off to the right end of the Formatting toolbar. This button adds hyperlinks. When used properly, hyperlinks can make it easier for everyone to follow any cross references built into your document.

In Word 2003, we have built our own toolbar around these and similar buttons. We call it the Accessibility toolbar. It features no buttons that change the appearance of text without tagging the reason for that change -- no bold, no italics, no increase indent, none of those. If you want a big heading, you click a button labeled "H1." If you want a subheading, you click a button labeled "H2." Because we are using Word 2003, we can make sure that our employees see this toolbar by default.

And our efforts have actually been rewarded. Our employees are starting to get it. Better yet, many of those who learned what we teach have found that using Word this way saves them so much time that they are eager to teach their co-workers what they've learned. I won't say our message has gone viral, but it's at least gone fungal.

Looking ahead, we see new problems. In Word 2007's ribbon, Microsoft has given us a bunch of great new buttons that apply styles, but they have also left in place all the buttons that only change the way the text looks. So now we have the 16-pack of Crayolas.

By and large, we like the right half of the ribbon, where all the buttons for styles appear. But we don't want our employees distracted by the formatting-only buttons on the left. Unfortunately, controlling the ribbon in Word 2007 is nowhere near as easy as customizing a toolbar for Word 2003. But we're working on it.

Once we solve that problem, we intend to see if there is something we can do about another behavior -- Microsoft's literature calls it a "feature" -- of Word 2007. If you hover the cursor over any block of text long enough, all the formatting buttons slowly fade into view around that text -- at first, a ghostly image; ultimately, in high definition. "Click us," they beckon. "Change the way it looks. Don't apply a style. It would be so easy, and you know you want to."

Reviewing the accessibility barriers in our agency's older PDFs, I would estimate that at least 90 percent began in a Word document. Very, very few are a result of anything that happened during the creation of the PDF. Microsoft made it easy to get where we are today.

And y'all have been complaining about Adobe? When have they ever taught people to create an inaccessible document?


Cliff Tyllick
Usability specialist and Web development coordinator
Agency Communications Division
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality