Last week, the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released its Annual Report to the Secretary, the President, and the Congress for Fiscal Year 2019 (PDF), announced in a July 29, 2020 press statement. The report, which is a 44-page untagged PDF, highlights improved outcomes for students with disabilities and touts the creation of a National Web Accessibility Team, tasked with a protocol of "[v]erifying document accessibility." The report is not accessible.
As a federal agency, the OCR is required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to produce public-facing content that is accessible. In 2017, Section 508 was revised to clarify that by January 2018, covered websites, electronic documents, and software must comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.
The OCR's report violates key aspects of WCAG and presents a learning opportunity regarding very common and highly-preventable accessibility barriers to avoid.
To be usable by people who use assistive technology like screen readers, PDFs have to be tagged, the process by which the intended structure, the correct reading order, and graphical elements are identified. By failing to be tagged, the report does not meet even a minimum level of accessibility.
The report also fails to meet minimum color contrast requirements outlined in WCAG; fails to present adequate text alternatives for graphical content, like figures, charts, and graphs; and fails to make best use of document properties like Document Title.
Collectively, these barriers create a document that cannot be considered accessible, with or without the use of assistive technology.
Among other things, the Annual Report includes statistics about the number of complaints resolved during fiscal year 2019, information about policy and regulatory changes, and protocols and results of the newly-formed National Web Accessibility Team. It also includes some historical figures comparing the first three years of the Trump Administration to the prior administration.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says in the press statement:
"Despite the media's efforts to ignore OCR's track record under this Administration, the facts speak for themselves: Because of the hard work at the Office for Civil Rights, more students are getting results, and institutions are being held accountable."
It's an unfortunate fact that this report can't be confidently or independently used by many members of the public or students with disabilities; however, there are key lessons to take away for others interested in delivering accessible PDF documents:
- Tag your PDFs. A properly-tagged PDF will let assistive tech like screen readers identify and communicate hierarchy, structure, and information. When a PDF is completely untagged, as is the case here, the content is: completely unavailable; unreliable, as read-aloud tools in browsers or PDF readers can try to read the text they can find, but without confidence in accuracy and reading order, without structure like headings and lists, and without descriptions of images, charts, and other graphics; or forced to be auto-tagged by a PDF reader in an effort to make the content available to the user, which will contain inaccuracies and redundancies, and will not account for text alternatives. Tagging a PDF is the entry-level consideration for it to be considered accessible.
- Choose colors thoughtfully. WCAG specifies that most content should meet a minimum contrast ratio of 4.5:1, with some exceptions for large text or some interface elements that have a lower acceptable threshold of 3:1. This ratio is the numerical value assigned to the difference in light between two colors, or, how well one color stands out from another. When colors have sufficient contrast, most people will be able to read the information. When they have lower contrast, as is the case with some of the colors in the Annual Report, many people with low vision, color blindness, or other conditions will be unable to distinguish the information correctly, if at all. Color contrast is easy, but very important, to check with tools like the a11y® Color Contrast Accessibility Validator.
- Test your content. There are aspects of accessibility that sometimes are subjective; even the most seasoned accessibility professional will admit this. Subject matter experts are trained in proper testing protocols and are qualified to make judgment calls that they believe will best-serve the end user of the content while keeping in mind the intended use case of the website or app owner. Many aspects of accessibility, however, are cut-and-dry. For example, no accessibility professional would argue that an untagged PDF is accessible, or that colors that badly fail color contrast expectations are accessible. These kinds of issues can be carefully planned for, tested, and fixed by including subject matter experts in the creation and remediation of digital content, as these failures are completely avoidable and entirely unnecessary. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it's the reminder to include those experts, whether they're in-house or vendors, to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities and violating laws like Section 508.