PDF/UA and Document Accessibility: Why it Matters

PDF/UA is a technical standard for developers to implement so that PDF documents are accessible to people who are using adaptive technology.

There are three components to PDF/UA:

  • A PDF document that is PDF/UA compliant.
  • A PDF/UA compliant viewer/reader.
  • A PDF/UA compliant adaptive technology.

All three components work together to support the accessibility of the PDF document. For example, if you have a PDF/UA compliant document but the application you are trying to view it in does not support accessibility, then the document is not accessible. If you have a PDF/UA compliant document, a PDF/UA compliant viewer/reader but the adaptive technology does not support accessing either the viewer or the PDF document, then the content (the document) is not accessible.

Prior to its’ introduction there were no clear standards for the conversion of source documents into accessible, ‘tagged’ PDFs. The mind-set of the majority was, that by clicking a button that automated a tagging process (in Word or InDesign) that this was enough to create an accessible PDF. In reality, the result was an un-ordered, inconsistent PDF of auto-tagged documents often with illogical semantics and mark-up. Disabled users were disproportionately affected, and did not have equal, independent access to information.

But not only do non-compliant documents disadvantage those with an impairment, they also restrict the needs of the general public in accessing data via text search, copy and paste functions, etc.

In contrast, the end result of a document built using the PDF/UA spec is a more reliable, more accessible document that avoids the tricks and traps that a PDF can present. PDF authors don’t need to know anything specific about what goes on behind the scenes; the tools themselves are responsible for adding and retaining the accessibility of the PDF. It ensures a level playing field, guaranteeing that the relevant software, hardware and digital documents can work together as effectively as possible. PDF/UA compliant documents are universally accessible from a technical view, meaning they allow improved communication methods for those with a disability. And having the tag PDF/UA compliant means the individual knows what to expect, and knows they can access it with confidence.

That does not mean that a PDF/UA-compliant document will always be perfectly accessible—issues like poorly-built Word documents or other source material will, of course, carry their accessibility flaws no matter what format they’re converted into. But conformance does imply that the authoring process for a given piece of content retains its accessibility level when converted to PDF format.

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