Adobe tackles its accessibility dilemma

As they prepare to comply with new requirements to make Web sites readable by visually impaired users, federal Webmasters point to a major concern Portable Document Format files.

Adobe's Accessibility Tools for PDF Documents

As they prepare to comply with new requirements to make Web sites readable

by visually impaired users, federal Webmasters point to a major concern — Portable Document Format files.

Adobe Systems Inc., the company that invented PDF pages, says it expects

to have at least a partial solution available by spring, when the new requirements

are due to take effect.

For months, federal Webmasters have worried that tens of thousands of

files created in Adobe Systems' PDF and posted on government Internet sites

won't be readable by the screen readers that visually impaired people use

to access information on the World Wide Web. Yet Section 508 of the Rehabilitation

Act says they must be, and it gives individuals the right to sue agencies

that fail to comply.

When government Internet gurus on the Federal Web Business Council broached

the issue during a meeting this year, the best they could hope for was that

demonstrating "good faith efforts" to comply with Section 508 would shield

them from legal liability.

Adobe is developing a new version of its Acrobat Reader that will make

it possible for screen readers to comprehend many of the PDF files that

are now unreadable, said Rick Brown, accessibility chief at San Jose, Calif.-based

Adobe.

Although PDF files are often thought of as "graphic" files that are

unintelligible to screen readers, not all are, according to Brown.

"It is possible to have a PDF file that is an image of a page," Brown

said. For instance, the government uses PDF to scan in older documents so

they can be viewed on computer screens. These are essentially pictures of

old pages and usually cannot be deciphered by screen readers.

But other PDF files contain text as well as images. Screen readers often

can read the text, but not necessarily in the same way it was arranged for

traditional computer viewing.

A PDF document of a newspaper page illustrates the problem. Say the

page contains three articles arranged in multiple columns. To the eye, it

is obvious which columns belong to which stories, and the reader can easily

follow the pattern. But a screen reader will simply read from left to right

across the page, line after line, jumping from column to column, mixing

contents from each of the three stories.

Adobe is designing its new reader to follow the logical structure of

each story. "Logical structure can indicate precise reading order and improve

navigation, particularly for longer, complex documents," according to Adobe's

description of its future reader. The reader "will be able to follow a single

article from beginning to end, much as a sighted person would flip through

the newspaper pages to continue reading an article."

The new reader will work best with new PDF files, especially those that

have been designed with accessibility in mind, Brown said. But the reader

will attempt to make old PDF files accessible to screen readers as well.

Its degree of success with older files depends a lot on how the files have

been written. "If the author has done something in the document that makes

it unreadable," the new Acrobat reader is probably out of luck, Brown said.

Adobe hopes to minimize that problem by providing tools that will let

designers test their pages for accessibility. The company is also developing

"some automated authoring tools that will make it very easy to create a

PDF file that's accessible," Brown added.

Accessing PDF

Because PDF is widely used on the World Wide Web — via corporate networks,

e-mail or CD-ROMs — Adobe offers a number of ways to make PDF files accessible.

Since 1997, the company has operated a Web site (access.adobe.com) that

will convert PDF documents into HTML or plain text so they can be easily

interpreted by screen readers. The conversion works best for English documents.

French and German "convert fairly well," but languages such as Japanese,

Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew and Russian "are not supported," according to the

company.

Adobe also offers Acrobat Access 4.0, plug-in software that works with

Microsoft Corp.'s Windows to make PDF files readable for Windows-based screen-reading

programs.

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