PDFs at WSU: Looking Ahead

In our efforts to prepare for and promote accessibility on campus, as well as to prepare for our transition into a new web site, there has been a lot of talk about PDFs.

We’ve said “PDFs need to go away” and “You need to stop using PDFs.” That has a lot of people worried and wondering what to do next.

Don't worry, we’re going to work with you.

You’re not going to be alone, you’re not going to get a mandate to make changes without instructions, and you’re not going to be unable to conduct business.

This is a very complicated question, and to unpack it we’re going to have to look at what standards we need to meet and the different uses we have for PDFs on campus.

Background: Accessibility Basics

The accessibility standards are complex and detailed, but they boil down to a single, critical idea: We need to make all of our offerings (information, learning, entertainment, etc) available to people with a mix of abilities.

There are three core user groups we need to think about for every piece of content we present:

  • a person who has visual limitations and can't see the content
  • a person who has auditory limitations and can't hear that content
  • a person who has physical limitations for interacting with the content (can't use a mouse, etc).

So, without delving into specific standards, we can just think in terms of how we make a piece of content accessible to someone who has one of those three limitations.

If we take the time to ask ourselves “can a person with any of these limitations access this content?” we are on the path to improving our accessibility.

What about when the answer is no?

If the answer to that question is “no, a person with a limitation can't access this content” we need to consider solutions.

  • Is it possible to make this version of the content accessible? (preferred solution)
  • If not, how can we make an equally effective, alternative version available?

Making our PDFs Accessible

When we start specifically talking about PDFs, we need to break them down into the ways in which we use PDFs. Essentially, there are three primary uses:

  1. We create a carefully designed print piece, like a flyer or postcard
  2. We create a document that is meant to be read (an article, white paper, guidebook, etc)
  3. We create a form that is either printed and completed by hand, or is completed online

Fliers, Postcards, Menus, and heavy-design elements

Design, especially design for print, is a challenge for accessibility. One of the great things about PDF as a format is that it’s easy to take an image or anything else that you might print and turn it into a PDF. The Acrobat Reader program is so widely used you can always count on a user being able to open and view the content.

And, to be honest, a well-tagged PDF document can be a very accessible, easy to use document for a person with a disability. The challenge is creating that well-tagged PDF. The workflow is highly technical, challenging, and would need to be repeated every time the object is saved as a PDF again. So, corrections and updates would require a lot of repetitive work.

So, for those and other reasons, we recommend that fliers, postcards, and heavily-designed promotional items transition to web pages rather than PDF as the primary format.

If you absolutely must use a PDF, and you can't make the PDF accessible by providing accurate tagging, you’re going to need to create an alternative access version of the content — and the easiest way to do that and make it available would be to create a web page. So, creating a web page from the outset is often going to be the best idea.

A Document Meant to be Read

White papers, articles, catalogs, and so on are often presented as PDFs online. These have many of the same problems for accessibility that were outlined in the section on fliers and promotional materials.

It is possible to make a long PDF document accessible, but it can be technical, challenging, and require repetitive work every time the document is edited and re-exported.

So, for many of the same reasons, we encourage offices that create white papers, articles, and so on in a PDF format to consider whether it makes sense to create web pages instead of PDFs for that content.

PDF forms

We love forms. We have forms for practically all activity on our campus, and in most cases those forms are presented on paper, and perhaps made available online as PDFs.

A paper form is not accessible to a person who can't read it or hold it/write on it. So, forms that must be completed on paper have always required accommodation. However, if we can make it possible to complete those forms on a computer, that makes them accessible to more people.

Some offices have started using form-fillable PDFs that can be completed on a computer. That’s one way to make a form more accessible. However, like any other kind of pdf, it can require a lot of technical skill and work to make a pdf form accessible.

Web-based forms, on the other hand, are much easier to maintain, make accessible, and they make gathering and handling the data from those forms much simpler — so working to transition paper and PDF forms into webforms can be a big boon for our workflows as well as making those forms much more accessible.

There will always be forms that require signatures or other sorts of validation. As we work for a more accessible WSU, however, we need to examine each form we use and determine whether a webform is a reasonable alternative to that form, based on it’s function.

The Road Ahead

We won't get getting rid of PDFs overnight, and we won't be getting rid of them completely. But over the next few years, as we work on our new web site, we will be rethinking how we provide and request information from our audience, and in the process we will be working to eliminate a lot of the PDFs that are out there.

In the end, that will provide a much more accessible, user friendly, and attractive user experience.