Tuesday, November 16, 2010

More than PDF needed for accessibility

Gian Wild talked about "PDFs and accessibility - AGIMO review" at the Web Standards Group meeting in Canberra, today. At the previous WSG Meeting, an AGIMO representative expressed the view that it was not feasible to make PDF, RTF or MS Word files accessible and so agencies should provide information as accessible web pages. This would not be a great change from the current formal AGMIO advice: "Agencies are reminded that it is still a requirement to publish an alternative to all PDF documents (preferably in HTML)." The formal release of the AGIMO PDF Accessibility Review, was due in mid-2010 (and is now four months late).

My view is that while in theory PDF could be made accessible, but in practice this is so hard to do it is not worth the trouble. It is simpler to create an accessible web page with HTML. Ideally a good quality HTML page can replace PDF.

Gian started with an introduction to web accessibility issues. She pointed out that WCAG 2 guidelines do not cover cognitive disabilities (including dyslexia, aphasia). Also colour blindness is common. Few people are completely blind (that is not being able to see any light). Many use magnifiers to make the text larger. Also "screen readers" do not cope well with Flash and JavaScript. She showed an example of text transposed to demonstrate what a person with dyslexia is faced with. She pointed out that physical disabilities have difficulties with keyboards and/or mice.

Gian pointed out that Youtube now has automated text captioning. The creator uploads a file of the text and Youtube automatically matches this to the audio.

Gian the went on to discuss the Disability Discrimination ACT and the precedent set by the SOCOG case I was an expert witness for. The Australian Human Rights Commission recommends WCAG version 1 (version 2 to follow). Federal agencies are required to comply with WCAG version 1 now with version 2 to follow. The Australian Human Rights Commission gets more complaints about PDF than any other format.

There were 40 submissions to the AGIMO PDF review. Vision Australia found tagged PDF difficult to use and lacking in support from assistive technology. AGMIO looked at best practice advice from Adobe. Assistive technology vendors advised they were reluctant to support tagged PDF as so people use it. As a result AGIMO will not define as accessible and will require an alternative format.

However, tagging is useful, as for example for text to speech. What Gian seemed to be saying was that a simple text PDF document was easier to navigate than a complicated web site with lots of menus. However, a simple web page might be even better.

Gian demonstrated to use of a text to speech system (in this case BrowseAloud.com). She pointed out that these systems can be useful for people who have a physical disability as they can place the pointer over some text to be read without having to click. One feature of the software is a dictionary. It occurs to me that some of these features and guidelines could be of value to students, particularly with those learning in a second language.

Gian suggested that AGIMO and other governments should fund an accessibility toolkit for WCAG 2, to translate the esoteric language of the guideline into something web designers can understand and use. Gian also pointed out that many simple accessibility tips (such as "use simple language") in WCAG 1 was removed from WCAG 2. These sort of useful tips could be included in a government sponsored cookbook.

One interesting option I suggest is the use of e-book formats. These could provide a useful alternative to PDF for large government reports. The EPUB e-book format is based on HTML. It should therefore be possbible to create an e-book which looks good online, prints like a conventiaonal report and could be easily also provided as an accessible web site. This would remove the need for PDF and web versions.

ps: The meeting was at the Geoscience Austrlaia building in Symonston. This is worth a visit just for the display on geology in the foyer, the library, map shop and cafe.

1 comment:

Kerry said...

Well, as neither of AGIMO's gurus on Accessibility were there, I don't see how an AGIMO representative could have said what you claim that they said (or at least with any authority).

And I didn't hear anyone saying that Word or RFT were inaccessible formats, but then I was sitting towards the back of the room.