Between a rock and a PDF

PDFs and Accessibility Seminar

I will be running a public seminar on accessibility and PDFs in Melbourne on January 18th. For more information see the Melbourne Web Accessibility Meetup Group.

The Australian Government’s study into the Accessibility of the Portable Document Format for people with a disability

I have finally had a chance to read through the extensive AGIMO study into PDFs. It’s a comprehensive review of PDFs and their accessibility, and the authors should be commended for completing such detailed testing while still being able to explain the findings in plain English. It is the most thorough review of PDFs that I have seen, and it confirms some of my previous statements.

I recommend that you read the report, even if you don’t have time for all the supplementary documentation. This post will be dealing with the conclusions of the report. A future post will discuss the assistive technology testing in more detail.


The study focussed on PDF files, as more complaints are lodged with the Australian Human Rights Commission about PDF than any other format.

“Overall, the Study found that there is insufficient evidence to establish that the development of the Portable Document Format and improvements in assistive technologies have advanced enough for PDF files to be considered accessible for people with a disability, particularly for those who are blind or have low vision.” (quoted from the Executive Summary).

The study discussed three important issues that contributed to the inaccessibility of PDFs (quoted from the Executive Summary):

  • the design of the PDF file by the document author to incorporate the correct presentation, structure, tags and elements that maximise accessibility;
  • the technical ability of the assistive technology to interact with the PDF file (via the relevant PDF Reader); and
  • the skill of the user and their familiarity with using their assistive technology to interact with a PDF file.

The study also mentioned that there is no agreed definition as to an “accessible PDF”, although some work in this area is being undertaken.

In conclusion:

“Until further data is available on the characteristics of an accessible PDF file and there are Sufficient Techniques available to support the conformance of the PDF technology to WCAG 2.0, the Australian Government position recommending that alternative file formats be provided whenever PDF files are used should remain unchanged.”  (quoted from the Executive Summary).

11 thoughts on “Between a rock and a PDF

  1. Steve Buell says:

    Isn’t it interesting that the format itself was not deemed a a technical barrier? The issues lay where they most often do do: the author; the rendering technology; and the capabilities of the user with their AT.
    My hope is that when there are consensus driven requirements for accessible PDFs, everyone will step up to the plate.

    BTW, your comment box doesn’t scale very well for input display. Long words are not visible and run off the comment area.

    1. Gian says:

      Yes, I agree. I feel the report’s authors skirted that issue – perhaps due to the involvement of Adobe in the process. (If you look back on the comments they have made on my previous posts, Adobe seem to think that they can make PDF an accessible technology just by screaming that it is). As for the comments box – thanks, I’ll get my developer to look into it.

      1. Gian,
        The only commenter from Adobe on your previous blog posts was me, and I don’t recall screaming anything. Perhaps you can clarify?

        The insinuation that AGIMO’s report avoided criticism of the PDF format due to Adobe’s involvement is baseless. Adobe provided information to AGIMO upon their request, but they spoke to many other people and organizations and came to their own conclusions. If you feel that there are issues with the PDF format that should have been cited, please let me know what they are.


  2. Andrew Downie says:

    It’s hard to imagine that authors and users will be motivated to get their respective acts together while advocates continue to label the PDF format as the black sheep of today’s communication options. Less than a decade ago, screen readers provided vastly poorer access to HTML pages than they currently do to PDFs and noone but noone beat up on that format. My experience also causes me to strongly suspect that if a similar study to that discussed here focused on HTML, quite widespread paucity of screen reader user ability would be revealed (you can lead a horse to a manual, but you can’t make him read it).
    I am not saying that most PDF material on websites shouldn’t be in HTML format and fully recognise that most PDFs are poorly structured. As a screen reader user, though, PDFs are not by any means my biggest issue, both in terms of frequency or severity. Poorly structured HTML pages generally and forms specifically are a far bigger issue. There are many examples that make completion of a task extremely tedious and quite a few that block access completely. And then there’s Flash, that AGIMO deems to be an accessible technology. If ever there was a technology with horrible accessibility compliance, this is it. It completely bewilders me that PDFs get the thumbs down while Flash, apparently without the same rigorous research, is smiled upon. With just a little information, an author can make a PDF document very accessible. With the best will in the world, and even with considerable knowledge, getting Flash right is a very tricky process.

    1. Gian says:

      I do find it interesting that AGIMO made a blanket statement that JavaScript and Flash were accessibility-supported. I would have expected the same kind of enquiry into those technologies, as was done with PDFs.

  3. […] The information in this post was taken from The Australian Government’s study into the Accessibility of the Portable Document Format for people with a disability. See my previous blog posts for the conclusions of the AGIMO study into PDFs. […]

  4. PETER says:

    Its a shame we were overlooked, as an Australian company, we produced (now taken off) a touch screen PDF Reader that easily read out documents and moved from one function to another by the singular TAB key.
    We have just put our FREE reader online and probably is the only one in the world that can also SAVE your FILLED IN FORMS. For Government and Corporate its only a few hundred dollars for an entire site. Check out

  5. […] Between a rock and a PDF (results of the AGIMO PDF enquiry) […]

  6. […] did not identify headings consistently (for more information see my blog post on the results of the enquiry). GA_googleFillSlot("InArticle_728x90_1"); There is some controversy over headings. Some […]

  7. […] Headings are a valuable way for people to navigate through content – either visually or through audio feedback via a screen reader. When dealing with a hundred page PDF, it is absolutely essential that a user can navigate via headings. Screen readers can pull out a list of headings, and this is a standard way for screen reader users to determine the content of a particular page without having to read through the entire text. Lack of support for this requirement in Adobe Reader was one of the reasons the Australian Government Information Management Office decided that PDFs were not accessible – because the two most common screen readers (JAWS and WindowEyes) did not identify headings consistently (for more information see my blog post on the results of the enquiry). […]

  8. […] So what’s the problem with PDFs? There are a currently a range of issues in making PDF content accessibility. These have been well documented by Gian Wild in posts such  as PDF test results by assistive technology and Between a rock and a PDF. […]

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