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Accessibility checks for non-experts

Accessibility of PDFs

The following steps will allow text to speech assistive technology, used by people with some disabilities, to read a PDF document aloud more accurately.  These steps will **not** make the PDF fully accessible; they will make it much easier for Office of AccessABILITY to create a more accessible PDF in a reasonable turnaround time.  Hunter Library requests faculty to follow these steps for materials submitted to Library e-reserves.

  1. Clean Condition
    Items should be clean copies without skews or marks such as handwriting, highlighting, or discoloration from copying and scanning.  If you do not have a clean copy, check whether the Library has a copy, or Ask a Librarian for assistance.  If you still have not located a clean copy, try requesting one via interlibrary loan.  (As long as you would have complied with copyright by posting your original, copyright requirements allow you to post, on a password protected site, a version you obtain for accessibility reasons through interlibrary loan.)

  2. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) 
    PDFs should be accurately OCR’ed.  If you can copy and paste an individual phrase or sentence from the PDF, it is usually OCR’ed.  If clicking on the page causes a whole page or section to be highlighted, it is not OCR'ed.  Most modern PDFs are already OCR'ed.  PDFs scanned from hard copies tend to have less accurate OCR than PDFs created from an originally digital source.  Follow steps in #1 above to try to obtain a better copy if needed.

  3. PDFs Converted from Word, Powerpoint, InDesign and Other Formats
    Documents converted to PDF from other formats such as Word, Powerpoint and InDesign can be very difficult to make accessible.  As CUNY's accessibility site explains, "PDF files are the most difficult [type of document] to make accessible.*"  If at all possible, upload the original format, or at least save the original and make it available if needed. 

    See CUNY's accessibility site

What is a fully accessible PDF?

It may be helpful to know that, for a PDF to fully comply with accessibility standards, additional steps need to be taken using Adobe Acrobat DC (or competitors), which is freely available to CUNY employees, but complex to use.  Adobe maintains a very lengthy guide to standards for PDF accessibility. For example,

  • accuracy of text recognition needs to be checked, especially for PDFs scanned from hard copies
  • text descriptions need to be added to explain images, diagrams, and graphs;
  • the order in which the document is read by assistive technology needs to be checked, especially if it contains anything more than columns of text;
  • headings, links, footnotes and more need to be checked for identifiability and usability by adaptive technologies.

While it will not be practical for most faculty to fully check or remediate PDFs for accessibility, some may be interested to explore this further.

Additional Helpful Steps Faculty Could Consider

Students may request accessible documents through Office of AccessABILITY.  However, fully remediating some PDFs can be very complex and time consuming. Research shows students with disabilities commonly do not obtain fully accessible PDFs.  Beyond steps 1 to 3 above, faculty can help by:

  • Avoid using PDFs when possible.  HTML, EPUB, Microsoft Office docs and Googledocs are typically preferable if available.  However, if you are working directly with an individual with a disability, ask about their preferences if possible.  In some situations, they may prefer PDFs due to familiarity with the format, if the PDF is relatively clear and accessible.
  • Understand that students with some disabilities need extra time to have Office of AccessABILITY or others remediate PDFs. Understand students with visual disabilities and others may not have access to identifiable page numbers, section headings, table organization, footnotes, graphs, images and more in PDFs.  Communicate with students about this as you think relevant.
  • Offer to write descriptions of any images, diagrams, graphs or tables contained in PDFs that you consider necessary in order for students to have equal access to your intended learning outcomes.  Office of AccessABILITY may assist but faculty are sometimes the only subject experts capable of doing this accurately.  Preparing ahead is ideal, but this is often done when a student with a relevant disability (e.g. a visual disability) needs this.