[accessibleimage] Re: Is the PDF format acceptable as an assistive technology

  • From: "Kaizen Program" <kaizen@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <accessibleimage@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 29 Jan 2012 13:05:47 -0800

Over the years, a number of blind computer users, including me, have 
repeatedly complained about the lack of accessibility of PDF files, 
especially those that are made as image files and those that are made 
automatically (which is most of them) without regard for the accessibility 
components that the most recent Adobe program can give PDFs for people using 
the  most recent versions of screen readers. When a PDF is made, the person 
making it needs to purposefully make it accessible. It does not happen 
automatically. Of course, there are many blind computer users who cannot 
afford to constantly upgrade their screen readers, which also means that 
many blind computer users cannot even take advantage of the most modern 
improvements when they are in the most recently made PDF files. And this 
does not deal with the issue of pictures, graphs, etc.

Image files require character recognition programs to produce electronic 
text that is readable by screen readers... Such programs are often too 
expensive for individual blind computer users.

Even when schools have the programs and the available staff with the 
know-how to convert PDF files to accessible formats, it takes skill and 
practice and it can take a long time, so the students may not get the texts 
when they need them. This can make it difficult for students to keep up with 
their peers in classes requiring reading of the material in the PDF files. 
And the offices that assist students with disabilities often have many other 
demands beyond assisting blind students with texts, since there are students 
with other disabilities requiring other help. And there are often more 
students with other disabilities than students who are blind...

It is an ongoing problem that has been written about on many forums related 
to blindness issues, in many magazines, and addressed to many publishers and 
the Adobe company itself directly.

As far as I am concerned, it is an ongoing frustration both for those of us 
not studying in school who need to read material for professional work and 
for students who are still in school.

Best regards,

Sylvie Kashdan, M.A.
Instructor/Curriculum Coordinator
KAIZEN PROGRAM for New English Learners with Visual Limitations
810-A Hiawatha Place South
Seattle, WA  98144, U.S.A.
phone:  (206) 784-5619
email:  kaizen@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
web:  http://www.nwlincs.org/kaizen/

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Richard Baldwin" <baldwin@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
To: "BlindMath Mailing List" <blindmath@xxxxxxxxxx>; 
Sent: Sunday, January 29, 2012 9:06 AM
Subject: [accessibleimage] Is the PDF format acceptable as an assistive 

In an earlier post on a different thread, I wrote:

"... I have unfortunately concluded that a sighted assistant will almost
always be required for the successful extraction of pictures from pdf files
for use by blind students.

It looks to me like it is time for some advocacy group for blind students
to declare that pdf is an inaccessible format and is not acceptable as an
assistive technology for providing educational material to blind students.

One alternative that is well known, relatively easy to produce, and far
less prone to accessibility problems is XHTML. -- But XHTML probably has
some warts in the accessibility area as well."

Amanda replied:

"As you know, even if that physics book had no pictures, it would still be
inaccessible. If a blind person needed to take basic math and all they had
to study was the pdf, they would probably fail. I think that not only
should the files be readable, but they should also contain labels pointing
 to separate picture files for embossing. ....

I really want to be involved in fixing this situation but don't know where
to begin or who to contact. I'm sure part of the problem is lack of
awareness on the part of publishers, but that can't be all that's going on
here. Do you have any thoughts on how I might get started?"

--End of quotations--

Here are some of my thoughts. First, I am able to answer many of your
questions regarding math, physics, computer programming, and engineering,
but when you ask questions about how to bring about social change, you are
probably asking the wrong person. That is far out of my area of expertise.

However, even though I don't have any answers, I do have some thoughts.

First again, achieving change of this magnitude will probably require group
action spearheaded by some recognized organization such as the NFB for
example. There is probably little or nothing that an individual can do

Second, that organization will need to have backup from some really capable
technical blind people, such as Michael Whapples, Sina Bahram, and John

Third, I would suggest that pictures, images, illustrations, charts,
diagram, or whatever you choose to call them be considered a very high
priority. Here is my reasoning for that suggestion.

For you and your physics book, the most important accessibility problem is
the equations, which understandably are more important to you than the
pictures. However, you belong to a minority group within a minority group.
I may be wrong, but my guess would be that the majority of blind college
students are mainly enrolled in degree plans such as English, history,
sociology, political science, etc. And (just like the majority of sighted
students) most of those students never see an equation and wouldn't know
what it is if they saw one one.

However, even those students are confronted with textbooks that contain
pictorial illustrations of material that is germane to their field of
study. Some even have textbooks that contain pie charts, bar charts, and an
occasional line graph, which are difficult to explain with words.

My point is that for the majority of blind students, the thing that is most
important to you (equations) is not important to them at all. However, you
do have common ground with the majority of blind students when it comes to
pictorial illustrations in textbooks. All textbooks have them and all blind
students should be at least moderately interested in them. After all, there
is a lot of truth to the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand

Regarding equations, I believe that the organization that takes the lead in
such an effort should flatly state that, while the technology for dealing
with images is far from being settled, there are recognized standards for
dealing with math in a way that blind students can understand. They should
further take the position that it is simply unacceptable for textbook
publishers to fail to follow those standards when providing supposedly
accessible textbook formats to blind students.

As a minimum, all textbook publishers should be prepared to provide
separate files containing all images in a recognized, non-proprietary image
format and should be prepared to provide separate files containing all math
and all equations in a recognized standard format. Obviously, they should
also be prepared to provide information that correlates the material in
those files to the page and paragraph of the textbook.

Going beyond the minimum, all of the content of an electronic document that
is provided to blind students for purposes of accessibility should be
easily extractable intact into a well-documented non-proprietary electronic
digital format (other than voice) so that it can be subjected to current
and future developments in assistive technology.

Here is an analogy for what I mean by current and future developments in
assistive technology. During the days of film cameras, you snapped a
picture and unless you operated your own expensive and messy film
development laboratory, what you got back from the developer was what you
got back. You kept the good photographs and you discarded the bad ones.

However, with the advent of digital photography, tremendous strides have
been made in the ability to enhance photographs. Using a program like
Photoshop, even a novice who doesn't understand the mathematics involved
can often rescue a bad photograph and turn it into a good one. That can be
very important if the photograph happens to be the only photograph that you
own of your now-deceased grandmother and it was taken during her 101st
birthday party.

I predict that there will also be similar advances in assistive technology
to make it easier for blind students to understand the various kinds of
information in a textbook. I don't know what those advances will be, but I
do know that if the information in a textbook is locked inside a
proprietary, non-accessible format (like pdf), it won't matter, because it
won't be possible to apply the advanced technology to the information.

And by the way, I doubt that this problem is the result of "a lack of
awareness" on the part of textbook publishers.

Those are some of my thoughts.

Dick Baldwin

Richard G. Baldwin (Dick Baldwin)
Home of Baldwin's on-line Java Tutorials

Professor of Computer Information Technology
Austin Community College
(512) 223-4758

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