PDF, which stands for Portable Document Format, is an electronic file format commonly used for assigned readings, assignment descriptions or the syllabus in a course. PDF’s can be viewed on multiple platforms (MAC and PC), are small in file size, and cannot be easily edited. One added feature of a .pdf is the preservation of the original formatting and graphic appearance. So how do .pdf files cause issues with accessibility?
When a pdf with words is created from an electronic source, such as a Word document, the default option is to save the document as “text”. This makes it possible to be read by a screen reader. No problem!
However, a problem can occur if the original source of the document is from a physical paper, book or journal. In this case, depending on the scanner and the options chosen, the pdf can be saved as an image. When saved as an image, a screen reader interprets the page as being “blank”. Sometimes this is not discovered until much later and then it is difficult to go back and re-scan the article.
All course materials, including PDF’s, need to be OCR (optical character recognition) compatible, which allows the content of a document to be read by a screen reader. When a document is in the OCR format, each character is represented and able to be interpreted by a screen reader. In this case, the .pdf must be converted using special software from an image to an OCR format using programs such as Adobe Acrobat Pro.
OCR scans can be done by the Disability Support Services Office here on campus. However, this takes time and the student using a screen reader has to wait which could result in not completing the assignment on time. The solution?
If your .pdf’s look like this image above and are “classics” you have been collecting from journal articles or books over the years, have them checked to see if they are in OCR format. If they are not OCR, check to see if there is an accessible option available online or through the Library databases. If you have the original paper copies, work with the Library to scan the material and place on e-reserve. When you put in the request, be sure to note it should be OCR scanned.
I should point out that if there are handwritten notes in the margin, scanning “noise” present, pages are curling in the page gutter or characters are faint, a screen reader may have difficulty interpreting the characters.