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The Australian Government's study into the Accessibility of the PDF

Published: 1st December 2010

Author: Andrew Hart

Earlier this year we were involved in a public consultation with the Australian Government concerning the Accessibility of PDFs. The report from that consultation is now available online here.

The PDF and accessibility

The PDF has been around since 1993 and is now in its 9th version. In that time Adobe have made huge advancements to the format and it has improved no end, not just in respect to Accessibility.

I met with Adobe many years ago when I used to work for TSO, the UK's primary publisher for Parliament and Government. At that time Accessibility (on the Web) was much less commonly heard of or understood and yet the representatives I met with were very receptive and many of the improvements suggested were soon incorporated.

Whilst the technical accessibility of PDFs is now very good I have other reservations when considering them for the primary format for web content. Much of this is also reflected by others contributing to the study.

Report findings

Not surprisingly, the study has found that while accessibility of the Portable Document Format is improving, like most tools, it cannot compensate for poor design. Content authors need to design accessibility into their documents from the outset.

"The Australian Government's study into the Accessibility of the Portable Document Format for people with a disability", Australian Government, Department of Finance and Deregulation (Infomation Management Office)

Despite the progess Adobe have made with the PDF there are still limitations faced by this format (and other non-HTML formats). Some of the biggest hurdles are:

  • When is it appropriate to use a PDF
  • How to author an accessible PDF
  • How to validate a PDF for accessibility
  • The impact an inaccessible PDF has on those trying to access them

It is vital to note that much of this is not a limitation of the technology, but rather the level of education and awareness of the issues - for both those creating/editing the documents and also the business owners. Just as with accessibiliity in general there has to be buy-in to the concept at all levels of the business/organisation.

Beyond technical compliance

Even if PDFs are created as accessible as possible there are still other issues that need to be considered such as the education of users of Assistive Technology, and Search Engine Optimisation.

Assistive Technology (AT) is relatively new (as is the Web and the notion of Web Accesibility) and there are many features of AT that even regular users do not make full use of, simply because of a lack of education - this is not simple software!

Businesses also need to consider the impact of format choice from other angles such as usability (many reports show that users perfer HTML Web pages over PDFs in most instances) and Search Engine Optimisation (PDFs do not rank as easily as their HTML counterparts).


The PDF is a great file-format and supports accessibility features well in excess of the majority of most disabled peoples requirements. Adobe have been very proactive and responsive to issues surrounding accessibility and have taken a very ethical approach which must be applauded. I can't name everyone involved but Andrew Kirkpatrick, Group Product Manager at Adobe, has been a major driving force behind Accessibility within the company and should receive a special mention.

However, Website Managers (and owners) alike need to be aware of the wider issues to allow them to make informed decisions when chosing which file format to publish in.

Further reading