Portable Document Format (PDF) files are one of academia’s primary currencies of information exchange. Yet they have a dark side. Without taking an extra step before sharing an exported PDF, each one systematically excludes people with disabilities. It is time to rethink our over-reliance on PDF as a file format by coming together to spread best practices and to develop more accessible alternative formats.
The Prevalence of PDFs in Higher Education
The PDF format is inexorably intertwined with the entire academic experience of a college student, from application for admission to graduation. PDFs welcome students to apply, explain the intricacies of financial aid, and detail the schedule of events for prospective student visits. Students receive syllabi, codes of conduct, readings, the flyer for the next poetry reading, and faculty office hours as PDFs. In the library, millions of journal articles, interlibrary loan materials, and handouts in library guides are published as PDFs. The crushing back-catalog of mass-digitization efforts from university archives are in PDF. PDFs are everywhere.
Why Are PDFs Popular?
PDFs are widely supported and portable—able to be sent over email or flash drive—for easy distribution. PDFs offer specific benefits, or “affordances,” to borrow language from The Design of Everyday Things (Norman, 1998). PDFs allow great control over visual presentation of the document. They preserve fonts, layout, and other design aspects. Viewers cannot manipulate content in a PDF, a characteristic that lends authority.
Why are PDFs Problematic?
We know PDFs are difficult to use on mobile devices, which is a burden for users relying on their cell phone data plans to access the internet; this contributes to a digital divide. We must also raise awareness that PDFs are not inherently perceivable to everyone, especially blind and low vision users. Without additional steps, PDFs can also be problematic for people with motor disabilities who cannot use a mouse and are dependent on keyboard navigation for tasks that involve saving embedded images to their device.
While other file types can also have accessibility issues, PDFs are the most challenging to remediate. In a recent survey of screen reader users, “The vast majority (75.1%) of respondents indicate that PDF [documents] are very or somewhat likely to pose significant accessibility issues,” compared with only 30.9% for Microsoft Word files (WebAIM, 2019).
PDFs are more likely to pose accessibility issues because ensuring the accessibility of PDF documents presents several challenges, ranging from a steep learning curve in using Acrobat Pro, to the risk of corrupting accessibility features such as reading order and tag structure when editing files. The source of the original file from which the PDF was created (e.g. Word) also affects how accessible a PDF file is, but regardless of source, any PDF requires at least a preliminary review in Acrobat Pro prior to publishing.
Acrobat Pro is the only software that allows an organization to consistently edit PDF files and ensure compliance with accessibility guidelines. Acrobat Pro is expensive, with a license required for every content editor who may interact with PDFs. Currently, Acrobat Pro runs just shy of $180 for an individual, annual prepaid license (Adobe Acrobat Pro, n. d.). While there are some third-party products that are designed to assist in making PDFs accessible, quality varies, and Acrobat updates can compromise performance. Third-party options can also be expensive. There is a burgeoning market for third-party vendors to provide PDF remediation.
Learning to use Acrobat Pro presents a steep learning curve. Acrobat Pro doesn’t follow the document editing conventions of other common PC or Mac document creation and editing programs like MS Office; rather Acrobat has its own set of conventions and editing tools. The accessibility checker built into Acrobat Pro is robust but complex; even regular users need to consult Adobe’s documentation to address problems. Further, for more complex documents, PDF accessibility may entail remediation via the Acrobat tag tree, thus introducing code editing within a complex interface and a need for additional training and support.
Even with thorough accessibility remediation, PDFs can remain difficult to use with assistive technology. The behavior of the screen reader can vary based on the app reading the PDF, and from there, individual assistive technology settings can conflict with remediation and tagging efforts.
Nathan’s Perspective as a Blind Student
The following account highlights the challenges co-author Nathan Clark experienced using PDF files as an undergraduate student.
Most of my experiences with PDF documents occurred during my last two and a half years of college, from August 2015 to December 2017 at Towson University, where I earned my degree in criminal justice, sociology, and anthropology with a concentration in criminal justice.
I was exposed to PDF documents in my higher-education career mostly when I conducted academic scholarly research for my criminal justice degree. Most of the time I was required by professors to find scholarly peer-reviewed articles to use which also had to be dated later than a particular year (usually within the last ten years). While I did not always find it difficult to find scholarly articles that had the correct content needed for my research papers, I found it difficult to find research articles that were in an accessible format for me. Some of the more popular criminal justice journals that I used included American Journal of Criminal Justice and National Institute of Justice. Just by doing a quick Google search, someone can tell that most if not all of these publication databases provide their articles to people in a PDF format and do not provide any sort of accessible alternative format for their users.
As one can imagine, because PDFs are not inherently accessible to the blind and low vision, trying to conduct academic research with these poorly formatted documents is nearly an impossible task for anyone, no matter their level of technical skills and knowledge. As a result of this, most of these documents were not accessible to me because they were not properly tagged and up to Section 508 standards for compliance. Furthermore, due to the time-sensitive nature of my research projects, I was required to rely on sighted assistance to get my documents sent back to me by either a Disability Student Services department employee in a TXT or Microsoft Word document or rely on my mom to take time out of her workday and personal life to make the documents accessible for me to read on my computer or my BrailleNote Apex notetaker. This process that I had to go through is time-consuming, ineffective, very tiring, and promotes dependency rather than independence. It is unnecessary for everyone involved. Most importantly, no one should have to tolerate this second-class system.
Although I am a blind student who has addressed his experience with PDF documents in this opinion piece, I recognize the sheer prevalence of PDFs in higher education and the lack of knowledge of content managers and university leaders on the issue of inaccessibility of PDFs for the blind. This, combined with the continuation of the digital divide in our society and the development of the evolution in electronic media, mean PDF inaccessibility will continue to further leave the blind and otherwise print disabled behind their sighted peers in academia unless smart, proven, logical, and reasonable changes are done to solve this twenty-first century problem.
The Cumulative Effect of Preferring PDF
Single instances of PDF documents and the barriers they can raise may seem insignificant, but over the course of an academic career they have a cumulative effect. The prevalence of PDFs, unreadable to a segment of the campus population, builds a digital divide between disabled students and their non-disabled peers in the classroom. As librarians, faculty, and administrators continue to rely on PDFs to share assignments and vital information, they unwittingly make the successful journey to graduation more difficult for some of their students.
Content creators often build this divide unintentionally. Among a lack of awareness when it comes to accessibility standards, the difficulty involved in creating or remediating documents to those standards, and misunderstanding the impact they have, it is easy to ignore the situation and contribute to the divide. These attitudes and outcomes, however, put our academic institutions in legal risk and serve to undermine the ethical standing we have in our relationship with students.
Legal obligations, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, serve as motivation for academic institutions to minimize or close the divide in the classroom inaccessible PDFs cause. In addition to these legal requirements, we as educators also have an ethical responsibility. Our role as guides to students on their path to graduation obliges us to fairly challenge them academically. By relying on PDFs, that challenge becomes more difficult for a subset of the student population, making it more likely that they will fail through no fault of their own.
PDFs for Website Content
In the last few years, blind students at Towson University shared their negative experiences with PDFs. In response, librarian Julia Caffrey-Hill decided to move away from PDF where she had direct control, the library website (all URLs beginning libraries.towson.edu). She inventoried PDF documents and removed or converted most to web pages. For some, she created custom templates. Policy web pages use serif fonts to lend the official air PDFs once did. For the remaining five PDFs, library floor maps, she worked with a colleague to produce audio and text-based walk-throughs (Caffrey & Simone, 2019).
If students’ experiences aren’t enough, know that this isn’t new advice—multiple usability studies point to PDFs as “unfit for human consumption” and a degradation of the user experience (Nielsen & Kaley, 2020a, 2020b). There is no reason to continue using PDF when it comes to web publishing. In an age of multiple web publishing platforms, like WordPress, one can publish the same information in a universally accessible format: as web pages rendered in browsers using HTML. One can customize the visual presentation using CSS. We need greater literacy within higher education about how to responsibly use formats that broaden access to information.
The Business Case and Benefits of Accessibility
Digital accessibility can benefit an institution in many ways. Most obvious is inclusion for individuals with access needs, but accessibility can benefit everyone. For example, captioning not only benefits Deaf or hard-of-hearing users, but also benefits the new parent who wants to watch their online class lecture while their sick child sleeps on their chest, or the viewer who is watching a video in a language they are learning. Websites with accessibility features like larger buttons help everyone by not demanding we precisely click a tiny area. Dark mode as an option across many interfaces alleviates eye strain for many.
Additionally, digital accessibility leads to innovation through assistive technology. If you are wearing eyeglasses while reading this, that’s an assistive technology. Roy points out that if you’ve ever sent a text message, you have used an assistive technology (2016). SMS was originally invented to help Deaf or hard-of-hearing people use cell phones (Sharp et al., 2019). Disability activists accelerated advances in speech-to-text and text-to-speech, technologies that made voice assistants possible.
Making content accessible for users with disabilities relies on structured text and accurate mark-up about the document that is visible to screen readers and keyboard-only navigation but not to sighted users. These are the same technologies that contribute to search engine optimization and help voice assistants like Alexa and Siri accurately do what they do. By optimizing for accessibility, we optimize for better user experiences and prepare for emerging technologies, like voice interactions.
Conversely, not considering accessibility can bring its own expenses: exclusion and potential litigation. Accessibility-related lawsuits are seeing a substantial uptick in the United States (Vu et al., 2019), and resolution costs can escalate into tens of thousands of dollars (Martín, 2018).
If you have a trove of inaccessible PDFs on your website, classroom, or other setting, you can take a step toward inclusion by conducting an audit and making a new strategy. The first step is to inventory what you have, and remove what is out of date or unnecessary. Then, starting with the most frequently used documents, ask, “Can this be a web page or Word document instead?” If it can, your content will reach a broader audience and align better with your institution’s commitment to inclusion. For web pages, you can use WAVE or accessibility checkers to review for accessibility. For Word documents, you can use Check for Issues under the File menu to review accessibility before sharing. It is easier to remediate web pages and Word documents than it is to remediate PDFs.
A far less ideal option is to continue using PDFs in libraries and classrooms. In this case, taking steps to ensure each PDF is properly tagged and Section 508 compliant will be necessary each time one authors or revises a PDF. Alternatively, providing an accessible equivalent in Word can work, but it requires authors to maintain documents in parallel.
We know that we need to find better ways to make our content accessible over the long-term. How can librarians and educators work with the tech industry to come up with a more sustainable alternative format that doesn’t require complex tag editing or providing parallel formats to ensure content is accessible to all?
A Call to Action
As professionals in higher education, we believe that diversity and inclusion benefit all, and that access to information critical to our students’ academic success should be universal. Relying on PDFs to disseminate information to students and our communities creates unnecessary barriers to those ends. It, therefore, becomes our responsibility, when we select formats, software, or technologies for our students, to do so in a way that helps tear down those walls.
This work is not something we can do on our own, though; we will need to work with partners both outside and within academia to achieve it. Libraries can seek assistance from the tech industry on novel software solutions that produce smarter optical character recognition. Colleges can support faculty and student research in advancing text-to-speech technology. Universities can reward vendors that develop new ways to seamlessly share documents in a way that everyone can access equitably.
Ultimately, these concrete steps bring higher education professionals and students closer to an inclusive experience, with equitable access to information for all. Weaning ourselves off the convenience of PDF benefits us in the long term and contributes to a diverse and inclusive campus. It’s time to explore new formats and reimagine a new currency of information in higher education together.
Adobe Acrobat Pro. (n.d.). https://acrobat.adobe.com/us/en/acrobat/acrobat-pro.html
Caffrey, J. & Simone, J. ( 2019). Floor map images and accessibility: Providing equivalent information with the user in mind. Journal of Web Librarianship, 13(4) 283–295. https://doi.org/10.1080/19322909.2019.1662357
Martín, H. ( 2018, November 11). Lawsuits targeting business websites over ADA violations are on the rise. https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-hotels-ada-compliance-20181111-story.html
Nielsen, J., & Kaley, A. ( 2020a). Avoid PDF for on-screen reading. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/avoid-pdf-for-on-screen-reading/
Nielsen, J., & Kaley, A. ( 2020b). PDF: Still unfit for human consumption, 20 years later. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/pdf-unfit-for-human-consumption/
Norman, D. ( 1998). The design of everyday things. MIT.
Roy, E. ( 2015, September). When we design for disability, we all benefit [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/elise_roy_when_we_design_for_disability_we_all_benefit?language=en
Sharp, H., Preece, J., & Rogers, Y. ( 2019). Interaction design: Beyond human-computer interaction (5th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
Vu, M. N., Launey, K. M., & Ryan, S. ( 2019, January 31). Number of federal website accessibility lawsuits nearly triple, exceeding 2250 in 2018. ADA Title III: News and insights. https://www.adatitleiii.com/2019/01/number-of-federal-website-accessibility-lawsuits-nearly-triple-exceeding-2250-in-2018/
WebAIM. ( 2019). Screen reader user survey #8 results. https://webaim.org/projects/screenreadersurvey8/#pdf