Document Accessibility Should Begin at the Author Level

Making document creators responsible for accessibility increases availability of information.

by / April 9, 2010

The ability to access and process electronic information has become one of the most important factors in leading a full and productive life in today's knowledge-based society. This makes access to electronic information critical for people with disabilities who are seeking employment and other opportunities.

Significant progress has been made to improve the accessibility of content presented on Web sites, often in HTML format. However, the accessibility of other electronic formats, such as Microsoft Word documents and PDFs, still lags behind and is often added as an afterthought, if at all. Given the enormous volume of content created daily -- often in the form of documents authored by individuals who know little about accessibility -- this means far too much material is inaccessible to far too many people.

Consequently the potential of the Information Age to level the playing field in terms of employment opportunities and to contribute positively to the lives of people with disabilities hasn't been fully realized. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate for 25- to 64-year-olds was eight percent, compared to 11 percent for those with a non-severe disability and 26 percent for people with a severe disability.

The Pyramid of Document Accessibility

Accessibility of documents can be implemented at a number of levels, as illustrated by the pyramid above.

At the top of the pyramid are enterprise verification and remediation personnel who are responsible for verifying that content created and disseminated by the enterprise is accessible. This typically involves auditing Web sites and other repositories of information to verify compliance with accessibility legislation, regulations and enterprise policies.

In the middle of the pyramid are quality-assurance and remediation personnel. They are typically responsible for testing documents before they are published and for correcting compliance errors.

At the base of the pyramid are document authors. The authors' main interest is to create content. They typically are oblivious to accessibility and are rarely aware of what makes a document accessible. There are a number of reasons why applying accessibility at this level can have the greatest impact. Authors know the content well. As a result, they can provide the most effective accessibility information. And authors are far more numerous than quality-assurance or enterprise testing personnel. Making authors responsible for the accessibility of their documents will take accessibility to the grassroots, thereby increasing the chances that documents are accessible. Also, it's far less expensive to add accessibility at the author level.

The Problem

Broadly speaking, accessibility of electronic documents remains a highly specialized topic that's exclusive to accessibility experts. Most electronic documents are created without consideration for accessibility and are then made accessible at a later stage in the life cycle of the document. This is far from optimal because costs increase exponentially and quality decreases significantly the further accessibility is removed from the authoring stage of the document-management workflow.

The outcomes of such inefficient workflows are several, including the creation of fewer accessible documents due to the significant cost and complexity associated with remediating documents at the later stages of the workflow, and a lower quality of accessibility data within the produced documents.

The Solution

A compelling solution is to make accessibility a part of the authoring process as opposed to a later-stage process that's often done, if at all, only as an afterthought. Author-level accessibility represents a significant breakthrough that will transform the accessibility of electronic documents by taking accessibility out of the realm of experts and bringing it into the mainstream.

The Vision

Using effective author-level tools, accessibility can be brought to the grassroots. For example, a university professor who is creating course materials and distributing them to students

will easily create fully accessible documents from her or his favorite authoring environment. The professor won't view this as an added burden but rather as an integral part of the authoring process, similar to spellchecking. Meanwhile, students with visual impairments will be able to easily read course materials because they will have been created with accessibility built-in by the person most qualified to create this accessibility information. Thus, the student will not be at a disadvantage compared to sighted students.

In another scenario, a job seeker with a visual impairment will be able to read job postings produced as PDF documents and fill out an online application form because the postings and forms will have been built with accessibility integrated into the documents and forms by their authors. This will enable job seekers to more effectively locate a suitable job and apply for it.

Effective Author-Level Tools

Central to achieving this vision are software tools that integrate into the authoring environment and ensure documents are made accessible by the author. In order for such tools to be effective, they must meet criteria.

o They should be integrated into the authoring environment so that the author does not have to exit the authoring application to run the accessibility tool.
o They should inherently verify documents against a well-defined standard, such as Section 508 or W3C WCAG 2.0. Once the tool finishes the verification and assuming the author followed instructions, the document should be compliant with the specific standard.
o They should provide the ability to both verify and fix compliance problems.
o They should impose a minimal burden on authors in terms of their knowledge of accessibility or the amount of work that's required to make a document accessible.
o They should use basic, nontechnical language and provide clear explanations and examples. It cannot be assumed that document authors understand technology or have more than a basic level of familiarity with their tools.

Accessible and Nonaccessible Formats

It should be noted that for tools to support a specific standard for a given document format, the document format itself must support the accessibility structures that are required by the standard. For example, formats like HTML 4.0 or PDF 1.8 support all basic structures required for Section 508 and WCAG 2.0. The Microsoft Word 2007 format, on the other hand, does not; for example, it doesn't provide support for row headers.

The degree of accessibility of a given format should be differentiated from how difficult it is to make the format accessible. For example and assuming tools are not used, while it may be significantly harder to add accessibility features to a PDF document than a Word document, a PDF document containing tables can be made accessible while a Word 2007 document cannot. PDF supports all the accessibility structures for tables while MS Word 2007 does not.


Author-level tools can bring document accessibility to the grassroots, but they have to meet a several criteria related to how easy they are to use and to how fully they support specific standards. Effective author-level tools make it possible to implement more optimal workflows that can enable content authors to create accessible content from the outset.

Deborah Kaplan is the director of the Accessible Technology Initiative at the California State University Chancellor's Office. She has several decades of experience in advocating for accessible technology and its implementation. She is the former executive director of the World Institute on Disability and a consultant to technology firms. As the director of the CSU's Accessible Technology Initiative, she oversees a comprehensive effort to implement accessible technology in the largest four-year higher-education system in the U.S. She has a law degree from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree from University of California, Santa Cruz.

Monir ElRayes is founder, president and CEO of NetCentric Technologies, a company that provides document-compliance solutions designed to enable government, educational institutions and corporations to ensure the accessibility of electronic documents and their compliance with a variety of standards. ElRayes holds a master of engineering (electrical) degree from Cornell University and a bachelor of science degree (electrical engineering) from the University of Iowa.