Accessibility and the High-volume Transaction Output Enterprise

Addressing the accessibility of documents (such as those in PDF format) for visually impaired users is not just a matter of compliance; it also makes good business sense.

by Peter Ganza

Statement presentment in the financial services, insurance, utilities, and government sectors typically requires the generation of high volumes of PDF documents that are stored for presentment or archived for legal discovery for seven to 10 years. As the most prolific document form for statements, PDF has a number of accessibility issues for those who are blind or partially sighted and using assistive technology. More specifically, PDF documents are difficult if not impossible to read online, leaving those with visual impairments with limited options. This issue is one that must be addressed.

Legislation, regulation, and enforcement of standards for the visually-impaired community are expanding as that community grows. Today, 3.3 million Americans over the age of 40 are blind or have low-vision -- a number that will surpass 5 million within the next decade. In addition, every 7 minutes someone becomes legally blind.

As baby boomers continue to age, they are using more technology to access information, products, and services. In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) -- which has strict guidelines for physical accessibility such as doors, ramps, and small business requirements -- has also expanded mandates to include online accessibility. As a result, Web sites are increasingly at risk of lawsuits relating to non-compliance; documents such as PDF are not far behind. Section 508 of ADA provides similar requirements for U.S. government agencies or vendors who do business with the government; it is being updated this year to clarify compliance relating to Web sites, documents, and content in general.

Addressing accessibility in an HVTO (high-volume transaction output) environment such as financial services can be daunting, but is certainly achievable. The industry has already made great strides to address Web sites and content portals (such as an online banking interface). Yet the question of what to do with PDF statements remains unanswered.

This is not a minor issue. For a typical financial institution with 2.5 million customers, at least 1 percent of its clients would be considered to have some form of a visual impairment. Assuming those individuals have at least three accounts with the institution in question and the firm doesn't issue combined statements, it would need to generate almost one million monthly accessible documents each year.

To date, financial institutions and other HVTO statement generators deliver alternative format statements to their visually impaired clients using internal consultants or document accessibility services (DAS). These statements typically come in the form of Braille, large-print documents, or audio CD. Although acceptable to date, using current outsourcing options to address an important and growing customer segment is not cost-effective. More important, it is not the preferred vehicle for information delivery to visually impaired customers.

This is being supported by the guidelines set out by the ADA that stipulate the need to create processes that are by nature "inclusionary" -- that is, processes that encompass all customer segments and groups with information, processes, and deliverables that can address the needs of all without singling out an individual user based on impairment.

Making a PDF accessible

When it comes to assistive technology, there are several options available to individuals with visual impairments. Screen readers (such as JAWS) are by far the most commonly used platform for users that choose to have their PCs speak content to them. Braille printers, text-only browsers, and zoom tools are also available. To make these devices properly work with Web sites and documents, they need to be built for accessibility.

The large number of export programs, as well as major inconsistencies in standards, has led to a crisis in PDF accessibility. Until recently, for example, many authoring tools did not support the ability to tag documents.

There are four fundamental technical requirements to make a document (or PDF) accessible:

  • Read order: Account numbers, overdue notices, and charts will interfere with a screen reader's ability to properly convey information in an appropriate order
  • Language specification: Screen readers can speak a variety of languages, so it is important to define language for the entire document, as well as any individual words that may be in a different language
  • Alternate text: URL links and graphics need to have alternate text that is helpful to users
  • Tables: Correct tagging indicates to screen readers that information is presented in rows and columns.

Although not a technical requirement, usability is also critical to document accessibility becausea visually-impaired user cannot interact with a document in the same way as a sighted individual does. Best practices and guidelines are available. For example, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C has developed the standards for Web and document accessibility called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (see http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20/). Currently in its second version, WCAG is a set of requirements that can be measured as A, AA, and AAA compliance. Generally, companies strive to achieve compliance with AA. Currently, WCAG is not specific to the PDF format, although one can still apply the guidelines to a PDF document. However, it is highly recommended to seek outside expertise to ensure documents are accessible to all users with impairments.

High-Volume Transactional Output Accessibility

Many organizations use a variety of databases and ECM tools. The best approach to ensuring accessibility in document production is to implement an agnostic, server-based platform that can be deployed across the enterprise. This approach reduces costs and implementation time, and it provides a framework for customers to access their information on demand. This can reduce the need for costly outsourcing services, strengthen an organization's competitive advantage, and fulfill the needs of an important customer segment.

The fact that customers are visually impaired does not stop them from having bank accounts, credit cards, insurance, nor does it absolve them from filing taxes. What's more, this community spends more time online than any other, and is often loyal to companies and brands that can meet their needs. They are the first to recommend products and services to others, as long as they are in fact "accessible".

Addressing the accessibility issue today is not only a matter of compliance; it also makes good business sense.

Peter Ganza is director, product marketing at Xenos, an Actuate Company. You can contact the author at pganza@xenos.com.