Millions of US citizens use assistive technology (AT) to read electronic content. A decade ago, the US Federal government's Section 508 regulations, designed to ensure equal access to information, went into effect.
10 years later, it's time to reflect, both on how far we've come and on some of the little surprises along the way.
Section 508 was based on WCAG 1.0, which assumed that all web-based content was HTML. Since PDF documents are generally created by users, few content managers elected to undertake responsibility for the PDFs posted on their websites.
Today, no one doubts that all documents posted on US Federal websites, whether HTML, PDF, DOC or other, must comply with Section 508.
Ten years after Section 508 went into effect there's been substantial progress towards universal access to electronic content. It's no longer just a Federal government objective; the Section 508 regulations spawned not only technological innovations, but a variety of similar rules in Canada, Australia and elsewhere. For users, things aren't changing fast enough, and who can blame them for complaining? If you doubt the frustration that inaccessible PDF documents impose on blind, low vision, motor-impaired and other users, try reading a page that's been shredded.
A key development of the last decade was the 2008 publication of WCAG 2.0. Technology-neutral, WCAG 2.0 is applicable to all technologies, including PDF, and it's rapidly becoming "the law" for accessible electronic content. WCAG 2.0 will be integrated into the forthcoming "refresh" of the original Section 508 regulations.
Written primarily to define PDF accessibility in software development terms, the forthcoming ISO 14289, better known as PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility) provides technical answers to the question "how does WCAG 2.0 apply to PDF".
Now at the "Draft International Standard" stage, PDF/UA heralds a new generation of software for creating accessible PDF documents and forms. The committees responsible for ISO 14289 are now hard at work finishing the text of the Standard. They are also developing implementation and best-practice guides to help developers, policy-makers and end-users ensure that PDF documents conform.