By Jeff Mills, Managing Director of Xenos EMEA.
Accessibility has become a growing concern for businesses, in terms of customer-facing electronic communication (e.g. documents) and websites.
In the case of presenting individual documents online to a user, more often than not PDF files are used as the primary for customer-facing documents, such as monthly statements or invoices.
At the same time, these files present significant challenges when it comes to a specific but ever-growing sector of the population: visually-impaired people using assistive technologies (i.e. screen readers).
The reason for the growing concern over PDF delivery is a matter of demographics and legislation. As baby-boomers continue to age, the needs of the visually impaired using assistive technologies are growing exponentially.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 states that it is unlawful for a provider of goods or services (including government agencies) to discriminate against a disabled person with regards to access to and use of means of communication and information services. It also states that there is a duty for organisations to make the necessary adjustments to ensure accessibility for all.
Today, most organisations provide accessible formats to their visually-impaired clients, either through internal consultants or document accessibility services. For example, an HTML-coded website helps blind users using text-to-speech software and/or text-to-Braille hardware.
When text and images are large and/or enlargeable, it is easier for users with poor sight to read and understand the content. Many organisations also make large-print, Braille or audio CDs available for documents.
While this approach is considered acceptable today, it poses risks by exposing personal information to a third party; adds significant and rising costs in producing websites and documents; and for the visually-impaired community, is not their preferred vehicle for delivery of information.
What’s more, specialised documents generally delay delivery of information to this customer segment. While most outsourcers promise turnarounds of 48 hours or more, market research indicates most visually-impaired customers receive their statements a month after typical delivery.
This limits the impact of transpromotional, or personalised marketing offerings embedded within statements. Today it is essential to provide equal access to all customer segments, for example, the majority of the visually-impaired community have multiple bank accounts, credit cards and savings and investments, all of which require monthly statements.
By way of example, consider a financial services provider with 2.5 million customers. At least 1% of their clients would have some form of visual impairment. Based on receiving three statements per month, the organisation may have to provide almost one million accessible documents per year.
To cost-effectively and efficiently meet current and emerging regulatory requirements, organisations need to invest in High Volume Transaction Output (HVTO) solutions which can provide accessible formats for all customers, regardless of impairment or assistive technology. This will only become more imperative as the number of visually-impaired individuals grows.
Seeing past the numbers
According to the Royal National Institute for the Blind, there are 156,300 people registered as partially sighted as of 2008, slightly more than are registered blind. Every two years these figures grow steadily by around 0.7%, with around 60% of blind or partially sighted people also having one or more other disabilities.
Assistive technologies for these customers are available, and options are expanding. From screen readers and text-only browsers to Braille printers, the visually-impaired community is actively using technology to browse the web, access documents and purchase products and services. In order for these devices to work however, documents and websites have to be built with accessibility in mind.
It is also important to note that usability plays a key role in document accessibility. A visually-impaired client will use the document differently than someone who is sighted, especially within the confines of assistive technology such as a screen reader.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) from The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) covers the specific standards for building accessible websites and documents. When it comes to PDF files, alternate text has to be defined for links and pictures, tables need to be defined and language for the document has to be selected.
Tagging, which binds the document’s content together and dictates elements such as reading order (screen reader users do not necessarily read left to right and certain content can interfere with the efficiency of the reader), language and alternate text for URLs and graphics.
Compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act means creating processes that are “inclusionary” by nature: in other words, processes that encompass all customer segments without singling out any particular segment or group. With trends leading towards increased regulation and enforcement, it is imperative for organisations to include accessibility in the planning process.
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