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Accessible Alternatives to PDFs, Tables and More

As your district commits to accessibility and creating an inclusive design, it’s likely that some aspects of the process are getting easier. You and your staff have made a habit of adding alt text to every image. You’re being cognizant of whether the calls-to-action on your website provide context rather than just saying “click here.” It’s also likely you are finding that despite best efforts, tables and PDFs are hard to let go, even though you know they aren't the best option.

In addition to being potential accessibility concerns, these non-reader-friendly components of your website are hurting your search performance and leading to redundancy in design. In this article, I will offer some accessible alternatives with considerable upside. 

What’s wrong with PDFs?

When PDFs first hit the scene in 1991, the Portable Document Format was groundbreaking, allowing people to share writings and collaborate without risk of the formatting being changed or misinterpreted by a different operating system or word processing program. They were/are a godsend for printed material, but they have now become a predictable weak point in many districts’ content libraries. While in the immediate, the convenience of uploading a PDF outweighs developing a new page or section on your website, oftentimes you’re creating more work for yourself and your community. 

Before uploading a PDF ask yourself, “What is this for?” 

If the document is something participatory in nature (like a registration form or an athletics liability waiver) why not make it a form? Finalsite Forms both increases accessibility and usability because it maintains full functionality across all platforms, allowing users to submit responses from any device and earning you brownie points because -- let’s face it -- nobody wants to download a PDF, fill it out by hand, and scan it back over to the school or worse yet, pop into your school office for a paper application. 

For popular content like lunch menus, rather than constantly re-uploading and replacing the new PDF with the current schedule, using Finalsite Calander Manager allows you to take advantage of Composer’s C.O.P.E (click once publish anywhere) technology. Users can create modular calendars which automatically publish changes made anywhere the element would appear on their website. This is also applicable to any such document which may be cyclical in nature, such as athletic schedules or monthly newsletters.

One useful alternative to PDFs is the accordion element. It’s ideal for PDFs which contain similar content, as it eliminates the need for excessive scrolling while organizing information into an easily searchable panel which is totally screen reader compatible and easily navigable. This is great for items such as curriculum guides, seen in use here on Fiinalsite client Simsbury Public Schools' website. 

If you’d like to learn some strategies for increasing PDF Accessibility, this on-demand webinar Making PDFs Accessible and Modern PDF Alternatives is an excellent resource. 

When in doubt, HTML

Your best bet for creating accessible content is always going to be creating an HTML page in place of linking PDFs which may not be screen reader compatible. Composer’s content editor features a built-in accessibility checker which uses technology from Finalsite’s partner Audioeye, the market leader for website accessibility, in order to check for potential issues such as missing alt text or descriptive link text and offer solutions before publishing. For a more in-depth look into the utility of this feature, this blog outlines how Composer simplifies web accessibility.

One design element that is often overlooked as a potential accessibility concern is the data Table. As it’s explained in this article by webAIM

“The purpose of data tables is to present tabular information in a grid, or matrix, and to have columns or rows that show the meaning of the information in the grid. Sighted users can visually scan a table. They can quickly make visual associations between data in the table and their appropriate row and/or column headers. Someone that cannot see the table cannot make these visual associations, so proper markup must be used to make a programmatic association between elements within the table.”

For users unable to rely on visual context clues, a data table is pretty useless without the proper HTML mark-ups. Using Composer’s “layouts”, schools and districts are able to create similarly structured information grids which still contain the necessary alt text and row/column headers to ensure the content remains accessible. 

As with all of the content listed above, this has the added benefit of increasing search performance. Alt text is inherently beneficial for SEO; as Google or other search engines crawl a page, elements with properly formatted alt text contribute to how the page is indexed and where it ranks.

Key Takeaways

There are always going to be uses for PDFs in the day-to-day logistics of emailing and sharing content internally, but when creating accessible content, your mantra should be “web first, print second.” Much of the messaging surrounding the accessibility conversation in the public education space paints ADA compliance as a means to an end, a way to avoid a fine. When you consider the added utility of accessible content as a means to enhance user experiences across the board and increase search performance, it becomes an opportunity rather than an obstacle. 

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