Weblogs: Web Accessibility

Accessibility of PDFs

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

A fracas has erupted over Jakob Nielsen's July 14th Alertbox essay, titled "PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption".

Nielsen's point is that reading off paper is much easier than reading off a computer screen - a statement he has stood by for years (and will for the future until 1200dpi screens are mainstream). Since PDF is designed around the paper-size, it's only a format that should be printed, not read on screen.

Nielsen did cover the same argument in June 2001, and Adobe supposedly rebutted it point-by-point. Reading through it, Adobe have made the fatally flawed assumption that people are running an Adobe plugin configured as an embedded module within Internet Explorer - thereby directly ignoring the accessibility argument.

This time around it's the same arguments: It's the author's fault that PDF documents aren't accessible. Adobe employees can create embeddable links and navigation and accessible documents, but the people it sells its software to can't. Why not?

PDF's accessibility seems to largely depend on MSAA, which stands for Microsoft's Accessibility Architecture. That would be a proprietary Windows-only accessibility solution: an oxymoron.

The overall suggestion is that PDF is by default inaccessible. Techniques and methods are available to allow access to certain parts of the PDF document, but there are limitations on PDF accessibility, and as such may be serious enough to prevent a PDF from being completely accessible.

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