Without Limits: Intelligent Documents for Everyone


Barrier-free – immediately, recontoured curb edges, wheelchair ramps and elevators at train platforms come to mind. It was not that long ago that these enhancements became part and parcel of our everyday life. Not until the mid-1980s did people first began to really concern themselves with the issue.

Now we talk about a barrier-free Internet, meaning "Web offerings that can be used without restriction by anyone, regardless of physical and technical capabilities" (Wikipedia). In fact, the law of the land has required this for some time. In Germany, for example, Version 2 of the "Barrier-Free Information Technology Ordinance in accordance with the Act on Equal Opportunities for Disabled Persons" (or BITV) has been in existence since September 2011, and is based on the guidelines of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The BITV is mandatory for all federal authorities and the basis for various laws at the state level.

Similar legal underpinnings are also found at the international level: the "Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Section 508" in the USA, the "UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities" of 2006, and the "European Guidelines for the Production of Easy-to-Read Information" of 1998, to name a few. All mandate the creation of universally accessible documents. In order to accelerate action on the issue, in July of 2011 the German federal government adopted the "National Action Plan to Implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities."

In this context, barrier-free means that media can also be used by persons with disabilities without restriction, whether they have difficulty seeing or hearing, or suffer from motor or cognitive impairments. Flashing or otherwise animated text quickly taxes someone with eye problems. For epileptics, it can even trigger life-threatening seizures. Acoustic content, on the other hand, poses an impossible hurdle for individuals who cannot hear. Even language can shut people out; just think of convoluted nested sentences and foreign "loan" words.

It is for these reasons that documents must also take these factors into account. Examples include contrast-rich designs, adjustable font sizes, alternative text options for multimedia content, and easily understandable language.

PDF/UA: Push for More Barrier-free Documents

The issue is by no means new. The blind, for example, have a number of aids, such as screen readers and Braille-capable printers, to give access to printed and electronic information. The problem is that often the documents are missing vital structural information, such as reading direction, language, column sequence, syllabication instructions, etc., that is needed for a correct rendering. How do we clarify homonyms when the output is speech, e.g. "I'm afraid not" vs. "I'm a frayed knot." Or what if superfluous information such as headers, footers, page numbers or logo names were read aloud?

For documents to be truly universally accessible, they need to fulfill a number of criteria. Tagging is key. What text passages and blocks belong together? In what order and how much of the text should be read aloud? Furthermore, non-text objects need alternative text, changes to the original (artifacts) need to be identified and the text formatted in Unicode. The new PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility) format, whose certification as an ISO standard is merely a matter of time, will surely substantially ease the creation of universally accessible documents.

Of course, it is already possible to tag PDF files, but structurally it does not go deep enough. To really create barrier-free information, you need to "dive deep" into the structure of a document. Conventional PDF tools cannot do that – yet. At least by the time PDF/UA becomes a standard, there will also be software for generating such documents. Experts view "Barrier-free IT" as a paramount issue for the years ahead.

Barrier-free Concerns Everyone

Some companies are still holding back, probably due to the fact that the issue has been watered down to the single aspect of equal rights for the disabled. But the demand for universally accessible information is not restricted to the needs of persons with disabilities. Consider the growing number of elderly in society. That alone warrants preparing documents for the natural changes in seniors' sensory capacities. This is certainly one reason why government agencies, and increasingly companies, offer their Web content in various font sizes. Imagine e-mails being read aloud in the car by a computer voice. That, too, is universal accessibility, requiring the recording of structural information and metadata in the document.

But there is yet another reason to concentrate on the issue. With the burgeoning availability of transactional documents on Web portals, semantic quality plays an increasingly important role, regardless of any legal obligations. Document workflows need to break out of the A4 mold, for example, and prepare their content for other forms of output in the future. Think mobile end terminals. They involve incremental reassessment of documents originally intended for print only, making them multi-channel capable, able to incorporate as much data as possible prior to final output, e.g. for archiving. This is where the necessary index data is embedded in the data stream.

Stop Destroying Information!

While we often see data being tossed out on the way to output, no matter via what channel, it's a practice no longer in keeping with the times. Often digital documents that could be read and processed via machine are first converted into analog form, i.e. print, and then into TIF or JPG documents, creating "pixel clouds" from the content. The actual content is initially encrypted (raster images) and then rendered "readable" through optical character recognition (OCR). Not only is this cumbersome, but also involves the loss of metadata needed for further processing.

On the other hand, barrier-free documents can be reformatted, e.g., from A4 to smartphone display, or converted into other formats (page format back to text-oriented format). Individual data can be extracted (including retrieval of invoice items) and table of contents and index lists can be built.

In the final analysis, universal accessibility is hardly an issue just for the disabled. In document creation, processing and output, in represents a quantum leap. It is far more than mere political correctness.

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