Making Electronic Documents Accessible

Crawford accessible documentsOver the last three decades, most Americans have adopted some form of digital link to the internet, whether it is desktop computers, smartphones, tablets or other devices. The internet is not only a major source of news, entertainment and other information, but it has also become a significant channel for connecting consumers and suppliers in just about every field.

Obviously, a key feature of electronic documents is that they are primarily in a visual medium, and for most people, information available online or sent via email is quick and convenient to read and understand. However, for the percentage of the U.S. population who are blind, partially sighted or have cognitive disabilities, easily accessing and clearly understanding these documents can be challenge.

Right now, it’s estimated that only a small percentage of online documents are made accessible to individuals who are blind or partially sighted. While many businesses may offer to make accessible documents available upon request, these offers are often not made public, and then producing a special document can cause delays in receiving information and responding to it, such as receiving and paying bills on time.

The alternatives for consumers to this “upon request” option include asking customer service or relatives and friends to read the information out loud. When the documents contain private information, this solution can be viewed as an unwanted violation of privacy. With regard to sensitive personal information, such as health records or insurance documents, individuals who are blind or partially sighted should not be put in a position of having to ask someone to read a document to them. All citizens want the ability to conduct their own affairs. When an organization makes its documents accessible, it shows respect for customers’ privacy and their desire for independence.

Accessibility requires skilled development

Reworking a website and/or an electronic document to make it accessible in formats that can be read by an assistive device requires special knowledge and skills. Not only the web pages need to be accessible, but all the documents available on the site need to be accessible as well. Organizations often have to hire experts with the necessary skills to achieve this kind of document accessibility, which can be an expensive proposition. Given that many of the individual documents are created on a recurring basis—monthly, quarterly or annually, this results in higher ongoing costs.

One required skill is knowing and understanding the specific industry standards applicable to making documents accessible to the blind or partially sighted. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has established the primary international standard for accessibility, called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG 2.0, published in 2008, provides comprehensive guidelines regarding how to make a website accessible, including the documents accessed through it.

The documents offered through a website—bills, statements, even marketing information—are often PDF files that convey both generic information and perhaps more in-depth content. For insurance or health-related websites, these added pages might contain personalized documents with customer-specific personally identifiable information (PII) and personal health information (PHI). For utilities and retailers, these documents may be invoices. Documents that include complex tables, graphs, PII and/or PHI are typically more complex than other document types, and as a result, delivery time for these accessible documents can be significantly slower than static content documents.

The power in automating accessibility

For all these reasons, automating the process of creating accessible documents is the preferred way to go to avoid an ongoing and expensive production burden for the business or organization as they work to comply with legislation—and to provide a superior customer experience for all customers. Automation also avoids the lag time involved if documents are made accessible only upon request. Solutions now are available that can provide significant support to simplify the process of converting documents to accessible formats for individuals who are blind or partially sighted.

Many businesses are using software solutions that effectively “read” and tag documents appropriately to convert them to WCAG standards for use with assistive technology. Accessible HTML5 is the preferred format for small documents such as invoices, while multi-page communications are better suited to Accessible PDF. The conversion from their existing archived formats to Accessible PDF and Accessible HTML5 can maintain complete document integrity, ensuring that all information is an exact match to the original, that it’s in the proper read order, and can be easily consumed with assistive technology. To a sighted person, the formatted documents look the same as ordinary PDF or HTML pages.

Accessibility serves everyone

Organizations that take a proactive, automated approach to document accessibility are more likely to gain and keep loyal customers in the growing population who are experiencing vision loss. Neglecting those needs may not only slow a company’s customer communications efforts and billing cycles, but result in losing customers or failing to attract them in the first place. Like anyone else, many individuals with vision loss will select the businesses they interact with, including banks, utilities, insurers and other health-related organizations, based on how easy it is to work with them.

Similarly, automating document accessibility through online solutions, like AccessibilityNow, can be a big help to individuals who are blind or partially sighted when the documents and/or information they need just is not readily available in accessible formats. These might be older, archived documents, or simply documents accessed through a retailer’s or other websites that are not offered in accessible formats.

These online accessibility options go a long way toward helping individuals who are blind or partially sighted to make full use of all the internet has to offer, in terms of convenience, instantaneous communication and the availability of every variety of information type.

by Ernie Crawford, M-EDP
(Master Electronic Document Professional)

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