[Irl-dean] Accessibility of PDF Format Resources?

Barry McMullin mcmullin at eeng.dcu.ie
Sat Nov 25 15:56:19 GMT 2006

On Thu, 23 Nov 2006, Joshue O Connor wrote:

> > Could you elaborate on this a little?  I'm not sure I understand
> > how PDF has any stronger requirement here than HTML?
> Of course. This comment is in response to my experience of using Acrobat
> Pro to create PDF files. When you are preparing to tag a PDF you open
> the file within Acrobat and go to Advanced>Accessibility>Add tags to
> Document menu. What Acrobat does is then apply what it thinks are the
> appropriate tags to the doc. So if it think that a large heading is just
> that, it will tag it as a heading.  a block of text as a paragraph etc.
> The point I am making is that it doesn't always get it right - so the
> automation of the process of creating accessible PDF files is not
> perfect, and nor should we expect it to be. You can then go to 'Touch up
> reading order' (in the same menu) and you will have the option of
> 'fixing' these automated errors (or approximations). The process is
> quite easy but may require detailed scrutiny, depending on the
> complexity of the document.

Thanks Josh - that clarifies it a lot. So it's really an issue
with a particular product for authoring accessible (tagged) PDF
rather than intrinsic to accessible PDF (as opposed to HTML). I
guess that for some (most?) products that help "automate" the
authoring of accessible HTML, then essential similar
considerations would also apply?

> I agree. However, PDFs are here to stay, and I think with a little
> effort on the part of public sector agencies in Ireland they can easily
> turn around the situation from  being *disastrous* ( emphasis mine, in
> terms of PDFs negative impact on people with disabilities, I don't have
> figures just anecdotal evidence) to a sea change and positive step
> forward. I suppose we should try to tread the thin line between being
> seen to *endorse* a product and acknowledging its ubiquity and trying to
> take a practical stance to improving its use. I have no intention of
> becoming a poster boy for Adobe!

Um ... but we surely need to carefully distinguish the technology
of PDF from any particular vendor or product?  Of course, PDF was
originally a creation of one vendor, Adobe.  But they have very
deliberately now promoted it as an "open" format, in the sense
that although (as far as I know) they still own and control the
specification, it is licensed for use on a royalty-free basis;
and indeed there is now a substantial economy of both open and
closed source developers and vendors of products which support
PDF.  But if we take that stance seriously - that it really is an
"open" technology, with multiple competing suppliers - then it is
important to keep discussion of the technology separate from
discussion of particular products and vendors.

Presumably, if PDF were *not* classified as an "open" technology
in this sense, it would not be appropriate for use *at all* for
interaction between public bodies and their clients/customers
... but that's what I was getting at with the subsequent remark:

> > (Indeed, I have *very* severe reservations about the
> >>> widespread practice, in the Irish public sector and elsewhere, of
> >>> providing free advertising, and therefore implied endorsement,
> >>> for just one particular product and vendor in relation to PDF
> >>> reader technology...)

to which Josh responded:

> I agree, but there is a bit of a disconnect here in that the tools and
> products that are used by the public sector are often very vendor
> specific. [...]

So now I need to be a little more clear.

I was not commenting *at all* about the choices made by public
sector organisations of tools or products or vendors for their
own *internal* use.  That is entirely a matter for their own
internal decision making etc. (subject, of course, to normal
rules of transparency and open, competitive tendering etc.).

I was commenting exclusively about the case where a public sector
organisation is endorsing or encouraging (or perhaps even
requiring?) their *customers*, or *clients*, etc. to use some
particular tool or product or vendor, in order to avail of their
services.  I think that is a completely different matter; in
general, I would say it is a fundamentally anti-competitive
practice, and should be avoided wherever that is at all possible.

So, in the specific case of PDF (as least of the non-encrypted
variety) I do quite seriously object to public service bodies
picking out one particular reader product, from one particular
vendor, for widespread, free, endorsement.

The particular product in question is, of course, the Adobe
Acrobat Reader. As far as I can see, it seems that public bodies
think it is somehow OK to selectively promote or endorse this
just because Adobe offers it for "free".  I can't agree with that
position: Adobe is still a commercial enterprise, and the
distribution of this product for "free" is still a commercial
activity quite deliberately designed to give it leverage in the
market.  This is most obvious when it comes to the additional
"locked down" features of the reader (such as saving data entered
into a form, locally): these features are *not* free, but Adobe
requires payment for their use. But this is potentially a very
lucrative proposition *if* their reader already occupies a
dominant market position.  But even aside from this: distribution
of their reader functions directly as a device for promoting or
advertising their other non-free products such as authoring tools
etc.  And I have no problem with any of that, in itself: I just
don't think that public bodies have any defensible role to play
in *assisting* Adobe with this particular, clearly commercial,

And PDF of the encrypted/DRM variety? Well, there are many
*other* problems with that, but it surely can't be regarded as an
"open" technology in at all the same sense as non-encrypted
PDF. So for that reason alone I would say it is quite unsuitable
and inappropriate for use in any interaction between public
bodies and their clients or customers.

OK, this has drifted rather far from considerations of
accessibility for people with disabilities; but it is not
completely irrelevant either.  I think it is great that certain
commercial organisations (specifically including Adobe) take
accessibility seriously, and work to improve the design of their
products to support this.  I will support and applaud any company
that does that.  However, conversely, I think that monopolies (or
single organisations with a "dominant market position") are
always bad for consumers in the long term - *even* if, in the
short term, a particular product might seem to bring particular
benefits to certain people with disabilities.

Rant over,

- Barry.

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