In order to have a high level of confidence in the accessibility of a PDF, in addition to using an automated accessibility checker and benchmarking against standards, you should ideally test with at least two assistive technologies (ATs). One of those ATs will be a screen reader (JAWS or NVDA). The other is PDF Aloud, a plug-in for Acrobat Pro/Acrobat Reader that comes with the popular literacy software, Read&Write Gold, version 11.
Why PDF Aloud is important
PDF Aloud makes it easy to check four things that a screen reader will not pick up on. It’s true that each of these four things can be checked via a manual inspection of Acrobat Pro’s Content panel. However, doing so is not quick or easy (quite the contrary, in fact).
1. Checking a PDF’s reflow reading order
PDF Aloud makes it easy to check a PDF’s reflow reading order, including the reading order of any text within charts or infographics. Not all ATs take their reading order from a PDF’s tags. Some, including Read&Write Gold and vBookz PDF Voice Reader for iOS, take theirs from the reflow (or content) reading order.
2. Checking the reading order of artifacts
PDF Aloud will also check the reading order of artifacts such as page numbers or running footers and headers. It is important that the reading order of such content is correct. This is often overlooked by people who only test with screen readers which don’t read such content.
3. Checking for hidden content
PDF Aloud will also announce page numbers, footers or any other content that might be hidden behind images or backgrounds, or content that may have been left off-screen on InDesign’s pasteboard. Graphic designers often assume that because such content is not visible it can’t be read. This is not so.
4. Nested Spans in the Content panel
Lastly, PDF Aloud will identify inaccessible content blocks. Although rare, content can sometimes be found in Acrobat’s Content panel inside a Span that is nested inside another Span. Such content will be ignored by PDF Aloud and will need to be repaired.
So what’s the problem?
As stated above, PDF Aloud comes with the literacy software Read&Write Gold, but only up to version 11. The current version is version 12.
In version 12, PDF Aloud has been dropped by Read&Write Gold’s makers in favour of a dedicated reader known as PDF Reader. Unfortunately, there are problems with PDF Reader, some of them very serious.
From a tester’s perspective
It is highly unlikely that most people testing PDFs for accessibility will have the time to listen to every single word of every document. In PDF Aloud this is not a problem. In order to quickly test a PDF’s reflow reading order you can repeatedly press PDF Aloud’s fast forward button to jump from one content block to the next.
But in PDF Reader there is no fast forward button. In order to test the reading order, including, importantly, any text contained within charts, graphs or infographics, you would have to listen to every word of the whole document.
In most cases this will effectively render PDF Reader unusable as a testing tool.
From the end user’s perspective
Inability to complete forms
A significant proportion of young people in the UK sitting national exam papers and who need some sort of AT to do so are Read&Write Gold users, and most accessible exam papers are PDF forms. However, PDF Reader doesn’t allow the user to fill in form fields.
This is obviously a show-stopping problem. By contrast, there is no problem with filling in form fields using PDF Aloud with Acrobat Pro or Acrobat Reader.
Greatly reduced navigability
In PDF Reader:
- There is no access to PDF bookmarks
- There is no way to tab to the next link
- There is no way to go back having used the mouse to follow a link (Alt + left arrow will do it in Acrobat)
- There is no facility to navigate by page number (Ctrl + Shift + n in Acrobat)
- There is no next/previous page keyboard command (Ctrl + PgUp/PgDn in Acrobat)
And so on… All this adds up to greatly reduced navigability than is the case with PDF Aloud and Acrobat.
Maximum of two PDFs open simultaneously
Finally, a less serious problem perhaps, but you can only have two documents open at any one time in PDF Reader. It’s quite rare, but some exam papers come in three separate documents, a question paper, an answer paper and a sources document. You can, of course, have as many PDFs open as you want simultaneously in Acrobat.
PDF Reader falls into the same trap as other PDF reading software such as PDF browser plug-ins (all of them!) and Apple’s Preview. They don’t have anywhere near comparable levels of accessibility support as Acrobat Pro or Acrobat Reader, rendering many important features unavailable to the end user.
Thankfully, you can still download version 11 of Read&Write Gold. Until such a time as PDF Reader can offer a comparable level of accessibility support as Acrobat, the makers of Read&Write Gold need to make sure that PDF Aloud remains available.
Having ongoing access to PDF Aloud will be critically important to both end users and PDF accessibility professionals alike.