508 PDF Basics

The Portable Document Format (PDF) is the standard format for online “electronic” publication of documents. PDF allows the publisher to ensure that a document looks the same online as it does in print form. PDF’s are unique in their “cross-platform” usability, and if they are constructed and tagged correctly they will look the same on different systems without having to install specialized fonts or rely on underlying operating system packages. Proper tagging of the visual and structural components of the document also ensures that the document will be accessible, meaning that assistive technologies (i.e. screen-readers like JAWS, etc.) provide the same information to visually impaired readers as to sighted readers.

The primary requirement for an accessible, and therefore a compliant PDF, document is that the tag structure fully represents the visual information provided by the document itself. The process to determine this requires the remediator to review each page in the document to ensure that it conforms to all the accessibility requirements and modify the tag structure of the page when required to ensure compliance.

The remediation is carried out at the global (document) level and by review of each page within the document. The workflow is straightforward, and upon completion the remediator tests the document’s compliance using automatic checkers, such as Adobe Acrobat “Full 508” check, PAC, Common Look, etc., as well as a manual review process, both visual and using a screenreader. The remediated document and the remediation reports are delivered to the client along with notes on the work carried out.

Accessibility/compliance requirements of specific clients are different, as there is no legally binding set of PDF accessibility requirements currently defined by the U.S. Access Board. Clients have some latitude in the manner in which they choose to develop PDF documents to conform to the Section 508 requirements. For example, HHS has a comprehensive checklist for their contracted documents, but passing an item on the HHS checklist doesn’t mean that the document is not compliant (i.e. the regulation is broad and doesn’t get into details like URL formats). On the other hand, any document that passes all HHS checklist certainly is compliant.

PDF/UA  was developed to create more specific accessibility standards.  “UA” stands for Universal Accessibility; PDF/UA designation certifies that documents are compliant with ISO Standard 14289, the new international standard for Accessible PDFs.  On February 18 2015 the US Access Board announced its Proposed Rule for US federal policy on Section 508, and identifies PDF/UA as equivalent to WCAG 2.0 for “appropriate content”.

The goal is accessibility for all; 30 million Americans have some disability, so documents that are accessible are not just “legal”, but are more valuable because they provide universal access. Proper remediation is the key to accessibility.