WebAIM - Web Accessibility In Mind

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Re: PDF vs. HTML


From: t.vance
Date: Jul 30, 2004 2:30PM

>My reason for asking these questions is that I historically have strongly
>advised clients against the use of PDFs because of the accessibility issue.
>Yet, there appears to be an increasing number of PDFs showing up. If the
>newest Reader is able to in fact "read" these files, then I guess I have to
>stop discouraging their use.

The university that I work for has a lot of legacy pdfs. Most of them are made in Quark or Word, which means that some of them have a snowball's chance of being accessible. The Word-originated pdfs have a higher chance, but they still require a lot of time to be made accessible.

Why am I telling you this? Because PDFs can be accessible (to a point) if you are willing to invest long hours and trial and error to make them both accessible AND usable. PDFs can be accessible, pass the 508 standards and most of the WCAG and they are still incomprehensible with a screen reader. Text flow is not Acrobat's strong point.

We have a lot of people that would like PDF forms. Not because of the neat calculating tools that Adobe has worked in or anything else, but merely because they look prettier than HTML forms. We try to steer them towards HTML even with the possibilities of accessibility with PDF forms. This is because we can assure both accessibility and usability in HTML with a quick creation.

On a good day it takes twice as long to make content that is completely accessible with Acrobat. That would be a verry good day. Most of the time it's a struggle. If the content was laid out in Quark you may as well forget about it.

The pros for PDF accessibility are that it can happen (hypothetically speaking), it means a few extra steps to repurpose content (hypothetically speaking) and it's prettier.

The cons are that the user needs extra software (plugins), the manner of accessibility is still pretty rusty for screen readers (as you pointed out with the run-on sentence example), and the whole process still takes way too much time.

HTML requires a browser. Knowledge of HTML or an editing program (preferably both, thank you very much). Some spare moments to copy, paste and get everything together.

The best thing about using HTML is that, if you're coding correctly, you don't have to worry about accessibility because HTML is *meant* to be accessible.

I would still stress HTML with clients over PDFs because of the amount of billable hours they will be responsible for paying and the time you'll be wasting slaving over the readable flow of the PDF document.

-Tina Bell Vance