If there’s one recurring question I can always count on when we launch ADA-compliant websites for current customers and new ones, it’s this one: What do we do about all the PDFs on our website?
If your school is like most, you have hundreds or thousands of PDF pages (yes, thousands) linked to your website. And just like your school website is required to be ADA compliant, your PDFs also are required by law to be accessible.
We ran a survey of schools last month and came up with these numbers: the typical 5-school district (one high school, 2 junior high schools, 2 elementary schools) has an average of more than 2,300 pages of PDFs.
These PDFs, which typically 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; provide options for creating accessible PDFs; and point you toward some helpful tools.
The most common PDF ‘issues’
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. PDFs, frankly, were the easy way out to make content as universal as possible.
In order to be ADA compliant, all your website PDFs must comply with WCAG 2.1 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.
WCAG guidelines are continuously being updated, and on the short horizon, WCAG 2.2 updates are scheduled to become effective as early as December 2021. The updates address nine (9) additional criteria, most of which are related to accommodating those with physical and cognitive disabilities.
The most common PDF issues are:
Images missing ALT text
Wrong/confusing heading semantics
Missing document title
Illogical or missing reading order
Tables with no defined header
Create a PDF production ‘process’ for your school
Having a standardized process in place at your school will help you avoid many of the common issues outlined above. To ensure the PDFs you create going forward are accessible, make this standardized process available to all your PDF publishers. It doesn't have to be complicated. Even a simple checklist will do: title, language, reading order, alt text, H1 before H2.
Keep in mind, some documents shouldn’t remain a PDF or would it be better off a submittable web form or static web page. Some are fairly complex – a physical form, for example – that might be better off being printed to a hard copy and snail-mailed. Not all documents can be PDFs that are readable by screen readers.
Manage your school website PDFs
When deciding how to address your current PDFs, you need to first consider whether you want to leave all your PDFs linked up then go through and fix each in order of priority, or remove them from your site then add them back only as they are needed.
Converting (most) PDFs is possible, but potentially very time-consuming. Depending on your resources, timing, and the number of files you have to convert, your courses of action are:
Do it yourself.
You’ll need time and tools, however. I recommend Acrobat DC and PAVE. Acrobat DC, 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, so that means it comes with limitations.
Hire it out.
The best option. Simply Google ‘website accessibility remediation’ and you’ll find pages of companies lining up to convert your documents, for a fee. Campus Suite just announced a PDF Accessibility Compliance Service. It’s a way to affordably manage your school website PDFs. You can check out this recent article about the PDF remediation service.
The Campus Suite Accessibility Compliance Service takes the responsibility off your hands by fixing and keeping your PDFs ADA compliant, so you can focus on education. It includes a Dashboard for reporting and managing all PDFs and Ongoing review and remediation by a certified specialist.
How many does your school have? The typical 5-school district has an average of more than 2,300 pages of 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.
Whichever path you choose – DIY or hiring it out – be sure to let your school community know you’re in the process of addressing PDF accessibility by articulating it in a website accessibility policy. You can download a template for creating your website accessibility policy here.
Chances are, your school website has a lot of PDFs, and you may have a lot of questions about how to make them accessible. For more answers, check out a free webinar video How to Make Your School Website PDFs Accessible. It’s a practical video that includes examples of typical PDF problems and then actual fixes. Also, be sure to check out this article for more specifics on the Campus Suite PDF Accessibility Remediation Service.
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.