Adobe, makers of the popular PDF applications Acrobat and Reader and the Creative Suite design applications, spoke to Media Access Australia about accessibility and recent improvements in its software.
Could you touch on any new accessibility features or changes that may be in Acrobat and Reader?
Adobe’s Matt May: The next release of Adobe Acrobat and Reader have a couple of major features that will improve the accessibility of PDF documents pretty broadly. First is support for Mac OS X and VoiceOver. We’ve done a lot of work to get to this point, and we’ll continue to build up our Mac support so VoiceOver users can read and interact with PDF documents like Windows users can today. We also have some great improvements to high-contrast mode, including the adaptation of foreground and background colours to ensure adequate contrast even when the content as authored doesn’t meet the WCAG 2.0 contrast ratio of 4.5:1.
The accessibility (or non-accessibility) of the PDF format is a very hot topic in accessibility circles at the moment. What’s the case Adobe makes in defence of the PDF format, and that it can be made accessible?
Matt: To a certain extent, I don’t think you can defend a document format any more than you could, say, a hammer. Hammers can do a lot of damage in the hands of someone who is particularly unskilled or careless. But they make great things, too. If they didn’t, hammers wouldn’t still be around.
And so it is with PDF, which began its life as, essentially, pictures of text. Over time, it’s evolved into a really robust format, with robust accessibility features to match. A lot of people have had bad experiences over time with PDF documents, and we’ve worked hard to address those problems over time. I would acknowledge that some people will never like PDFs, or Adobe Reader, because they’ve had more bad experiences with them than good. But PDF, and tools like Adobe Acrobat and Reader, are pretty popular for a reason, and that reason is that it makes it easier for people to share their work, the way they want it to be presented.
Some people have decided HTML should be the only format, because it doesn’t require another app, or because its magnification model makes more sense, or what have you. But going back to the idea of formats as tools, the same is true for HTML. You could find any number of examples of web pages which exhibit extremely poor accessibility, or limitations of the format (some of which are reasons authors turn to PDF). But rarely is HTML as a format blamed for each individual failure. Nor should it be. The format is only the core of an ecosystem including the tools used to author content, the content itself, the software used to view it, the author, the person reading it, and any assistive technology needed in the process.
In that respect, I would much rather see a discussion around the limitations of each of these with respect to the PDF authoring and reading lifecycle, relative to HTML, or Word, or what have you, than the kind of blanket statements we see now. “The default PDF viewer on iOS doesn’t support tags” is a reasonable, demonstrable, actionable criticism of PDF accessibility. “PDF is inaccessible” is not.
With content authors and accessibility professionals in mind, could you provide some advice on achieving greater PDF accessibility?
Matt: First and foremost, you want to preserve the semantics of your original document. The best way to do that is to export to PDF (not “Print to PDF”) from the app you use to create that source document: Office in particular has very good PDF exporting capabilities. If your process treats PDFs as digital, living documents rather than virtual sheets of paper, you are bound to have better outcomes overall.
With web designers in mind, could you provide some insight on how accessibility is advancing with Adobe’s Creative Suite?
Matt: We don’t make Creative Suite anymore, but Adobe Creative Cloud has a number of new tools for creating HTML content, including Edge Animate and Muse. These products are still evolving, but we continue to work with the teams on building WYSIWYG HTML pages (and PhoneGap [link is external] mobile applications) that also have accessibility support built in. We also have tools like Premiere, which supports captioning for both online and broadcast video, and Dreamweaver, which offers ARIA code hinting. Even InDesign and Flash Pro support HTML output these days.
We’ve largely moved away from the idea that one monolithic web application can solve everybody’s problems. That means we have a lot of smaller applications with even more ways to create and manipulate content, and while that’s a fun challenge for our product teams and accessibility specialists, we recognie that we have a lot of room for improvement.
With InDesign in particular, is Adobe working on fixing the way in which tagging does not always carry across into Reader or Acrobat?
Matt: Since at least InDesign CS 5.5, released in 2011, there has been the ability to map InDesign roles to PDF tags. Some evaluation software doesn’t understand that linkage, including certain versions of Acrobat. When you run a PDF through assistive technology, however, the proper document roles are represented, which is what’s important. Role mapping is often misunderstood, which is why we have text and video tutorials on the Adobe Accessibility site [link is external].
What’s Adobe doing to improve the accessibility of its products?
Matt: The main focus at Adobe Accessibility right now is cross-platform support. As we build tools for people to reach broader audiences, like PhoneGap or our Digital Publishing Suite [link is external], we know that accessibility includes every platform our apps and their output touches. We’ve trained about a hundred engineers on developing for mobile platforms with accessibility in mind, and we’re just getting started.
Anything else you wanted to share on Adobe and accessibility?
We have also been funding the NVDA Project [link is external] for a number of years. We feel that it’s critical to ensure that there should be free and low-cost ways to access technology across platforms, and we’re proud to support projects like NVDA which make that a reality.