Document accessibility: PDF/UA and the Matterhorn Protocol

Mar 22, 2021 | Articles

Web accessibility in documents is important for ethical and legal reasons (see: WCAG in the EU, ADA in the US). Information should be accessible so anyone can access it – regardless of their circumstances.

To ensure accessibility in documents, there are many guidelines to follow, and this has divided web specialists around the world into various camps. If there is one thing they agree on, however, it is that a PDF/UA identifier stamp is considered definitive proof that you have an accessible document.

To understand the implications of the PDF/UA stamp and how accurate it is, you need a thorough understanding of web accessibility, PDF/UA and how to verify the results using the Matterhorn Protocol.

What is web accessibility?

In short, web accessibility means that a website and its documents must be accessible to all. All digital information must be accessible for the assistive technology that users with disabilities utilise – this could be a screen reader, eye tracker, special keyboard etc.

For an organisation to achieve web accessibility in their digital channels, there are a set of guidelines that need to be followed such as WCAG 2.1. WCAG 2.1 is a set of detailed guidelines drawn up by W3C that describe what needs to be altered or improved to ensure accessibility on websites and in documents.

What is PDF/UA?

Documents are typically exported in PDF format before they are uploaded to websites or sent electronically. PDF/UA (Portable Document Format: Universal Accessibility) is a set of guidelines you can follow to stamp your document with a PDF/UA identifier.

PDF/UA primarily helps the recipient to identify which documents are accessible and which are not. PDF/UA is part of a document’s metadata and therefore not a visible part of a document, unless you use assistive technology, which will alert the user that the document is accessible – if it contains a PDF/UA identifier.

PDF/UA has an important role to play in a more web-accessible future. Yet it is important to recognise a potential pitfall of the technology behind the stamp: implementing an XMP file in the document’s metadata, manually or otherwise, will set the identifier – without the document necessarily satisfying the guidelines.

This is where we should keep in mind the purpose of web accessibility: It is not about stamping documents, but about observing a set of guidelines that make it possible for everyone to have access to information on equal terms. While software can place the stamp automatically, it is critical that someone with knowledge of accessibility, actively takes part in determining whether or not the document lives up to accessibility guidelines. This is underscored by the Matterhorn Protocol, which divides the guidelines for PDF/UA into whether they can be machine-approved or whether they require human expertise.

What is the Matterhorn Protocol?

To popularise the use of PDF/UA among software developers and document testers, the PDF Association developed their internationally recognised standard: the Matterhorn Protocol. The Matterhorn Protocol is a list of criteria that a document has to satisfy in order to be stamped correctly with a PDF/UA identifier.

The Matterhorn Protocol states whether the criteria can be approved by machine or whether human expertise is needed. The protocol consists of 31 checkpoints with descriptions of 136 ways in which a document can fail the criteria for obtaining a PDF/UA stamp.

87 of the conditions can be determined automatically by software, whereas 47 of the remaining conditions require a human with at least some understanding of accessibility to determine whether it can be approved as accessible according to the PDF/UA criteria.

In other words, it is absolutely necessary to look at the document with your own eyes to get an idea of which elements in the documents that are meaningful and to convert those elements into something that is accessible to all.

Doing the right thing

PDF/UA is undoubtedly an important tool for ensuring that everyone has equal access to information in documents – but it requires that we use it correctly.

That means it is important that we all help to uphold, and quality assure, the use of the PDF/UA stamp to preserve its value going forward. If we slacken the requirements, it will result in the devaluation of the PDF/UA stamp as a stamp of quality for recipients, and faith in the standard will be lost.

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