So, you think PDF is a problem when it comes to accessibility and Section 508 compliance? Let’s talk about that expensive and widely used word-processing software known as Microsoft Word.
Word appears unaware of Section 508 requirements for tables. In Word, column heading cells occur only when an option to repeat headings on following pages is selected. There’s no way in Word to create row headings, no way to manage multilevel headings and no way to set the scope of heading cells.
Microsoft may be unaware that Word is unaware of these requirements, since in their VPAT for Word 2007 Microsoft claims – erroneously – that Word supports paragraphs (g) and (h) of the Section 508 regulations which require, among other things, row headings in tables.
So why expect that a PDF made from Word will do any better?
Logical structure information has to come from somewhere. PDF has no inherent concept of words, sentences, lines or paragraphs for a variety of extremely good reasons we’ll discuss some other time.
PDF can include mechanisms that allow the document’s logical structure to be represented in addition to the contents. When a Word file is converted to PDF using capable software and the correct settings, structure information from the source is conveyed into the resulting PDF file.
However, to the extent that the authoring application is itself unaware of accessibility requirements, the newly-created PDF is less likely to be accessible as-created, and must be corrected after-the-fact.
In the accessibility world, PDF gets a decidedly mixed review. On the one hand, PDF is an extraordinarily flexible vehicle capable of providing accessible structure to documents from almost any source. On the other hand, this same flexibility makes quality-control a challenge, and understandings vary about what is and is not necessary in order to consider a given file “accessible and compliant with Section 508”.
For these reasons, it is always vastly preferable that the structure information necessary for PDF accessibility be provided by the authoring software when the PDF is created. Any other solution involves PDF editing expertise that very understandably confuses and frustrates many users; all the more so because it should be unnecessary.
The solution? There is no good solution – for now. At the present time, Word can’t make a Word file that complies with Section 508, paragraphs (g) and (h), so don’t expect it to make a compliant PDF either. Were you hoping that Open Office might do better? Me too. Think again; OO 3.1 slavishly follows Word, and includes the exact same limitations.
Those with Adobe Acrobat Professional may correct their table structures after PDF creation. Those distributing Word files are stuck.
Manufacturers of authoring software should focus on the essentials in their own applications – and that certainly includes getting table structure right! The coming Section 508 “refresh” is considerably more demanding than the existing regulations. Better authoring tools are in everyone’s interest, and soon.
As Francis Urquhart used to say, “It’s time to put a bit of stick about”.
By Duff Johnson