Comb through any school website and you’re likely to land on a PDF file sooner or later. There to provide important information like lunch menus and student handbooks, or gather information like medical or registration forms, PDFs are as much a part of school as the ABCs. Besides containing important info, however, they may also contain some barriers for those in your school community who have disabilities.
This article sets out to: give you a better understanding of what makes many PDF files unfriendly to those with disabilities; provide tips on creating compliant PDFs; and point you toward some helpful tools, including a link to an instructional video and follow-up resources around the subject of school website accessibility.
Some schools have links to hundreds if not thousands of documents that are not accessible or ADA-compliant. You are not alone if you are among those schools. But even if you have a few dozen or just a handful of non-accessible documents on your website, you really need to do something about it. It’s not only the right thing to do to serve those with disabilities, it’s the law.
Why PDFs in the first place?
The PDF file – Portable Document Format – was invented to readily share files across any computer using any operating system. The operative word here is ‘portable’ – easily moved, easily shared. And they are, for most of us anyway.
You know the drill. Save that Word doc, spreadsheet or form to a PDF, upload it, then anyone can read or download it. But just because it’s portable and easily shared, doesn’t necessarily mean everyone can access the content therein.
When Adobe invented the PDF format nearly 25 years ago, they didn’t take into account the roughly 20 percent of our population that has one or more disability. Our government requires school administrators to accommodate those with disabilities by making website content fully accessible. Like the public spaces of school buildings and parking lots, websites too need to be ADA-compliant.
PDFs have become the easy way out for everyone – not just school content managers – to make content as (almost) universally available as possible.
Where to start
Common questions regarding converting your school website PDFs: What about all those files I really need to keep? When should we start? Who’s going to do it? What can we do now to go about making all our web documents fully accessible?
In order for your school district websites to be fully accessible and ADA compliant, all your PDFs must comply with WCAG 2.0 web accessibility guidelines. Even for those school websites built using content management systems with built-in ADA-compliance, many of the legacy documents may not be accessible. Those files not accessible render your school website out of compliance with federal school website laws and guidelines.
Converting (most) PDFs is possible, but potentially very time consuming. Depending on your resources, timing, and, of course, the number of files you have to convert, you have three (3) courses of action:
- Hire it out, but it’s not going to be cheap. Simply Google ‘website accessibility remediation’ and you’ll find pages of companies lining up to convert your documents, for a fee.
- Use a qualified website service provider, and let them handle it all. The right provider that specializes in school websites can build fully accessible, ADA-compliant websites from the ground up. They will be accountable for the results.
- Do it yourself by starting with implementing a school website accessibility policy and beginning with my suggestions below.
How to make compliant PDFs
With the right tools and/or the right partner, you’ll find some PDFs can be easily converted, some can be converted with some work, others, well, others maybe shouldn’t be a PDF in the first place.
It’s necessary to first understand what makes for an accessible and ADA-compliant PDF before you set out to make them so. When your PDF document has different fonts and sizes, lots of colors, columns, tables or any of the many red flags that signal an inaccessible document, that’s when those with vision, hearing, motor or cognitive disabilities may not be able to comprehend or even perceive the content.
3 PDF musts:
Whether converting existing PDFs or creating them anew, be sure to pay attention to adhere to the following basics:
- The underlying structure of document. Reading should not rely on the visual presentation of content.)
- Ordering of the content. It must be logical and consistent.
- Navigation. Is it navigable using assistive technology?
From a timing standpoint, when determining the best evaluation process, consider whether you want to remove all the PDF’s from your site then add them back only as they are needed, or if you plan to leave them linked up then go through and fix each in order of priority. Whichever process you choose, be sure to articulate it in a website accessibility policy. Download a template for creating your website accessibility policy here.
Most PDFs will fall into one of the following categories, and it’s important you understand what type you’re dealing with when putting your solution in place.
- Simple, basic formatted PDF.
- More complex: (e.g., logos, multi-columns, etc.)
- Forms (immunizations, physicals)
Tools for evaluating:
Acrobat, the grandfather of PDFs, and my personal recommendation, has some cool recent accessibility improvements built into its DC product. PAVE is an open source tool developed by a Swiss university. It’s free, and you can try the PAVE tool here. Just understand that free comes with limitations. PAVE is not packed with robust editing tools like Acrobat DC.
To insure the PDFs you create going forward are accessible, establish a standardized process and make it available to all your PDF publishers. It doesn't have to be complicated. A simple checklist will do: title, language, reading order, alt text, H1 before H2. Your PDF file production process should be part of your overall school website accessibility policy. For step-by-step help on making your PDFs right, check out the video link below.
A lot has been swirling of late when it comes to school website and accessibility. So before your school gets slapped with a complaint from the Office for Civil Rights; or your district is featured in a blog hell bent on shaming schools into ADA-compliance, I recommend you take some action now.
Check out a free how-to video I just completed on How to Make Your School Website PDFs Accessible. It’s a step-by-step process that, in less than an hour, will get you started on converting and creating accessible PDFs.
You should also visit the Campus Suite Website Accessibility Education center for all sorts of free learning materials and resources you can share with your school staff.
Jason Morgan is co-founder and chief product officer for Campus Suite. He and his staff have guided thousands of school administrators through the process of building and launching accessible websites that engage their school communities.