Many organisations, especially those in the public sector, routinely publish forms created in Microsoft Word, mainly because of the ease and convenience of doing so. However, in an age when all online content must be made accessible, this is a problem. Word forms cannot be made accessible enough for general consumption (that is, for a wide range of assistive technology users) no matter how you produce them. The following will explain why. The choice is then between PDF and HTML.
Why Word forms are not accessible
Traditionally, there are two different ways of approaching creating screen reader accessible Word forms. In the first method, the entire document is “protected” in order to stop the user deleting or otherwise modifying headings, instructional text, legends etc, or from inputting data in the wrong places.
Assistive technologies that work well with this kind of arrangement include ZoomText Magnifier/Reader and Dragon Naturally Speaking (speech recognition).
However, all but the most experienced screen reader users are likely to have difficulty using such a form, as will users of literacy software such as Read&Write Gold, or users of other Magnifier/Reader software packages such as SuperNova.
For example, although JAWS users will be able to press the tab key to move from one field to the next (and to hear each field’s label announced in turn), they will not be able to access headings or instructional text (the protected content) without switching from the PC cursor to a secondary cursor such as the JAWS cursor.
However, accessing the protected text in this way takes a great deal of knowledge, skill and effort. The user will have to anticipate where there might be some protected text on the page, and to then switch cursors to go looking for it. Having read such text, he or she will then need to switch cursors again to access the form’s fields. This process may have to be repeated many times in a single form and is something that only the most advanced and experienced screen reader users are likely to be comfortable with.
Similarly, Read&Write Gold users, when using a protected form, will be able to read field labels by tabbing to, or mousing-over them (although with no highlighting available), but any protected text will not be read out loud by Read&Write Gold, nor will it be highlighted. Likewise, SuperNova will not read out loud any of the protected text.
Method 2: protecting selected sections
An alternative method is to protect only the sections of the form that contain fields, whilst leaving unprotected any instructional text. Creating a form in this way frees screen reader users from having to switch cursors in order to find the instructional text. It also makes such text available to assistive technologies such as Read&Write Gold or SuperNova.
The biggest disadvantage of this method is that any of the text in the unprotected areas can be deleted or amended. This is, of course, a potentially significant usability problem. Also, although less serious, the user will have to navigate using the up and down arrow keys instead of the usual (expected) tab key.
Comparison with PDF and HTML forms
Neither of the above methods of creating a form will be accessible to a general readership. By contrast, PDF and HTML forms have none of these problems. Because the text they contain is not editable, there is no problem with having to protect parts, or all, of a document. All the major assistive technologies will work well with correctly authored PDF or HTML forms, and users can choose to navigate via tabbing, by using the arrow keys, or a combination of the two.
In theory, HTML forms can be technically a little more flexible than PDF forms (although not so for the basics). However, in practice, unless you have a high level of developer skills, or unless your organisation has a very flexible Content Management System, you may be limited in the scope that HTML forms may offer for your day-to-day business needs. By contrast, PDF forms are almost infinitely flexible in terms of layout and design, and the techniques required to create them, either in Acrobat or in InDesign, can be learnt in a day.
Which format, PDF or HTML, is right for your organisation will depend on circumstances. However, there is, at least currently, no way that Microsoft Word will allow you to make fully accessible forms.