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The Information and Communications Standards of the AODA lists rules for organizations to create, provide, and receive information and communications that people with disabilities can access. The standard gives all people an equal chance to learn and be active in their communities. Organizations must create and provide accessible formats and communication supports to people with disabilities. For example, a clinic handing out pamphlets about its programs must have the same information available in different formats. For people who cannot read print, digital text would be a good option to have. People with visual disabilities can read digital text by using screen reading software, magnification, or a Braille display. But in order to be able to do that, the digital content has to be made accessible. The deadline for organizations to comply with these standards is January 2021.

Below you will find the transcript of the latest episode of Open Mic, the accessible podcast, featuring Adam Spencer.

Open Mic – The Accessible Podcast jingle.

Instrumental Music + Voice Over

(female voice) Hello and welcome to Open Mic, the accessible podcast. I am Andreea Demirgian, your host. In today’s episode, we will talk about why PDF accessibility should not be an afterthought. A couple of days ago I was trying to fill a form for one of my daughters. The form was a PDF document, meant to be filled in and emailed back to the organization that requested it. To my surprise, although this document belongs to a big organization, was completely inaccessible. Although I have no problem with my sight or my mobility, I was unable to fill it in online. I had to print it, use a pen, sign it and then scan it and attach it to an email. It took me more than 20 minutes to do all this and it made me wonder: what would a person that uses speech-to-text software do with this PDF? How would they be able to access the services I was requesting for my daughter? What if I didn’t have a printer and a scanner? What if it was urgent? What if it was vital?

There was no alternative to this PDF, just another online form that led to a consultant calling me back and telling me to… you guessed, fill in the form and email it back to them. PDFs are important. They can be more than a form requesting a service; they can mean access to funding, access to education, to a job interview or to a vital accommodation.

My guest today is Adam Spencer, a globally recognized leader in PDF and PDF accessibility technologies. He is one of the major contributors to the development of the new international standards known as PDF/UA which ensure the accessibility and usability of PDF and adaptive technologies.

(Music fades after 10 seconds)

AD: Adam Spencer, thank you so much for agreeing to be featured on my accessibility podcast. Welcome to Open Mic.

Adam Spencer: Thanks so much, it’s a pleasure to be here.

AD:  Let’s talk about how you became a Pioneer of PDF Accessibility and one of the top experts in the Accessibility industry.

AS: Well, there’s a long story and a short story. So, I’ll try to combine them. Back in 2009, my mom was actually working for one of the banks and had people on staff who needed document accessibility services and she had asked me to take a look and see what I could do about document accessibility. Bluntly, at first, I was naive and ignorant, and said “I don’t know the first thing about Braille”, and she said, “No, you, idiot, I’m talking about digital accessibility.” So, I took a look, it was an Excel file, and read up as much as I could and sent the document back in a few weeks and heard back from the end-user saying it was the best one they’ve ever read. Fast forward 6 months later, and she continued to pressure me to look into writing a business plan for a document accessibility business and in 2009, in the fall of 2009,  we created Accessible IT. Over the next 9 or 10 years, we became the global leader in document accessibility services for PDF accessibility remediation. It was an amazing time to see the change in the Industry, the change in perspective of what is accessible. I became a contributing author and Editor to the PDF/UA standards, the ISO standard for PDF accessibility, I represent Canada for that and it’s been an amazing journey. One chapter ended last November and the new chapter is looking to begin.

AD: Great! What has changed since 2005 when AODA became law?

AS: I think one of the biggest changes is awareness. Prior to 2010, is really waiting for the foundation. In document accessibility, we were waiting for the information and communication standard. So, once Infocomm came into place, we saw a dramatic shift in, obviously, not only the interest in document accessibility but also people’s awareness towards it. Initially, there was a big momentum towards… we need to train everyone, that everyone should be a document accessibility expert or everyone should be a web accessibility expert. That always puzzled me. I always relate it back to the French language laws. When French became required, everyone didn’t run out and learn how to speak French, because you don’t pick up a language in two days of training, it takes weeks and months and years to become fluent. And, quite honestly, accessibility is no different. It requires dedication. So, we have seen a big shift, particularly in the province, from the model of training everyone internally, to utilizing a balance of skill-sets both internally and externally. I think we’re starting to see that level off, in terms of people’s understanding of what makes sense internally, what are the gaps in the authoring software, what are the challenges, and costs associated with those things, I think that’s been the biggest change. There aren’t as many fly-by-night “experts” that are popping up as trainers, as we used to have. I think that’s leveled off, which is a good thing. I think a lot of people were sold a story that they could become an expert in a day, and that just isn’t the case.  But we’ve also seen organizations build accessibility into their strategy of authoring content, which is a huge shift, which has been necessary. There were too many organizations waiting too long, and ultimately, that became a much higher cost for them. What we started to see is that companies were able to plan for their accessibility, rather than react to whether that was a complaint or a lawsuit, depending on where you are in the world. So, the pro-active nature of organizations for document accessibility has been a great shift.

AD: Do you still have to explain why PDFs have to be accessible?

AS (laughs): Everyday!

AD: Ok

AS: Yes!

AD: So let me challenge you: why do PDFs have to be accessible?

AS: Well, it’s not specifically PDFs, it’s all content and I think one of the realities and one of the challenges that we faced in the document side of things is that a lot of organizations are… their digital presence is really controlled by their website. It’s very easy to take the first step saying: well, we made our website accessible, so we’re ok. The reality is, there’s still a significant amount of content that is not HTML-based. It’s not sitting as a webpage but it’s sitting to be accessed from your web page. And there was a big movement about 4 years ago that basically said: “PDF is dead, everything should be HTML!” I would say a lot of that was spearheaded from some people who were web developers, didn’t understand document accessibility to the same level; were looking at using off-the-shelf software approaches and didn’t have the ability to find those skill sets in house.

So this constant beating of “PDF is dead” just isn’t true. There over a billion PDF documents loaded to the internet every year, so PDF isn’t going anywhere, and unfortunately, people try to ignore it, which ultimately made the problem worse. People need to consume content in the format that applies best to how that content is going to be consumed. You’re never going to read a 300-page annual report as a website. There are regulatory reasons for that. There’s also consumption expectations from the user: how I read certain types of content. I am not a believer that everything should be a PDF either. There’s been too big of a pendulum swing from everything was a PDF in the late nineties, to everything was in a webpage in… I’d say 2012 to 2015. And now we’re starting to see that level off and say all of these pieces of content can coexist, so long as they’re all made accessible and that’s… that’s really the focus. You can’t ignore the downloadable document or downloadable content on your webpage. It also has to be accessible.

AD: We keep hearing that Canada is an Accessibility role model in the world, but Canadians living with disabilities say that even the AODA needs to get some improvement, and so does Bill C81, which is the Accessible Canada Act. What is your take on this matter?

AS: Well, for a long time, without question, the AODA was a leader, globally. I speak around the world about document accessibility and have always been proud to fly the Ontario flag because of the AODA’s prescriptive nature. I think one of the challenges that has happened over the years is that other jurisdictions are catching up, the new legislation in Europe is vast, not to mention the AODA only covers Ontario-based organizations, so it’s not a national policy. Bill C81 is going to make coverage of certain dominions, but it still relies on other provinces to enact their own legislation. So we will still have provinces that don’t have a defined accessibility act, like Alberta and Saskatchewan, and we’re still waiting on certain ratification and implementation from other provinces. So, yes, in 2005 without question, Ontario was a leader. By 2012, I think that still held. What we’re seeing though is not that the legislation in other jurisdictions is causing a paradigm shift, but in the US lawsuits are, and I’m not suggesting that we move to a litigious reality, I don’t think that’s the way to do it.  But the reality is organizations and large companies don’t move unless they have to.

AD: But how likely are Canadians to start suing people? ‘cause we are polite, right?

AS: But I think we’ve got other methods that don’t necessarily involve a lawsuit against an organization: a Human Rights complaint for discriminating against someone with a print disability is just as effective. I think it was very easy for large organizations in the Finance industry, in Telecommunications, in Transportation to say: “Well, we don’t have to do this yet, because there isn’t a federal law and we’re federally-regulated.” Bill C81 overcomes that or addresses that at least, but for up until that, we didn’t have legislation that impacted millions of Canadians every day. The reality was, it was an excuse to say “We don’t want to deal with it”. There are some organizations that had taken great strides, but we hear constantly: “Well, we don’t need to do that yet.” Or “We’ll get there.” Whereas, you know, the shift that we’ve seen by some jurisdictions in Europe, have been much more aggressive, and in the US, what we’re seeing is that if one organization is sued, then a lot of the other organizations in the industry are waking up and saying “Okay, maybe we should address this, too.” I don’t feel like we had enough pressure applied in Ontario, to be that stick. You know, the carrot is always “Let’s be a barrier-free province!”, which is absolutely the direction we should be heading. But, again, large organizations don’t move, unless there’s a potential implication, or a ramification for them not being compliant with the law. It’s just the way that it is. It’s unfortunate that that’s the case, but there were some great pioneers in Canada who had to sue, to make these steps happen. And we are not a financially litigious country but it, at least, wakes people up and saying “You are prohibiting me from living an independent life.” And the answer of “Well, someone else can read it to you” is unacceptable. We have the technology and the means to make everything accessible at the time of offering, but people still don’t take that to heart as part of their process, and that’s a critical piece that needs to be addressed

AD: When it comes to document accessibility, is there anything that you think AODA should change?

AS: Sorry, in what respect?

AD: I mean, is there something in the law that you don’t agree with, or you feel like it should have been worded differently?

AS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, for example, even in the Information and Communications Standard, which is my primary focus, it’s not as descriptive as it could be, which some organizations have commented: “Well, it doesn’t specifically mention this instance, so I don’t need to worry about it”. But back then, again, we didn’t have the same experiences that we have now, so the updating of language, the update of specifications… we now have WCAG 2.1. Well, we should be updating or provide general language that says “We need to be always pushing the limit of what we can do when it comes to accessibility standards.” Unfortunately – and this isn’t a criticism at the people who wrote the legislation – there was a lack of understanding of the implication of using certain language. Like the tiered implementation of WCAG. There’s no reason to implement a WCAG 2.0 single A website. Implementing a AA compliant website is, first of all, not a lot of additional effort, not a lot of additional cost, but for a user interaction standpoint, it’s miles ahead of what you get in a single A compliant site. But there was this fear amongst businesses, that said “Oh, this is going to cost us too much, you need to phase it in over time!” and that just isn’t the case. The reality is, to implement accessibility across an organization if you put a strategy together from the beginning, it is a drop in the bucket, compared to the cost of operating an organization with the old cost of printing content. Now we’ve migrated everything online but we’re still fixated on “Let’s do the bare minimum to get by, and we’ll placate people for a while”, without actually understanding the impact that can have on a user’s ability to interact with content. And I think, you know, we had legislation in place since 20005, a lot has changed in nearly 15 years in terms of our technical capabilities, our user expectations,  the technologies of an end-user… That’s got to be reflected and obviously, it takes a long time to update legislation. But we’ve had previous governments who were very interested, and we’ve seen feedback from external reviewers, indicating that we still have miles to go when it comes to accessibility, specifically in the province, as well as across the country.

AD: Okay, tell me about your new adventure with AbleDocs.

AS: Well, we have taken on a new approach to document accessibility. I was brought on by a company out of Europe, and we have rebranded that company and will be launching officially, I guess at the beginning of June with our full new branding. It’s about bringing a different approach to document accessibility, to make it more sustainable, more cost-effective. This has always been the fundamental belief that we have had as a group, and we brought some amazingly talented people together, experts in PDF accessibility, we have more contributing authors to the PDF Accessibility standard than any other organization in the world, under one umbrella. We’re launching a new suite of products to make document accessibility easy for organizations to implement. It’s not just about manually tagging files, it’s about looking at the document ecosystem within an organization, and saying how do we help organizations manage their document accessibility challenges. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Manually remediating files is not sustainable for all document types. So we have a whole Suite of products that can deal with locating content, determining whether it should be accessible or not, potentially managing those files or removing them from a public website, automating remediation at a high volume, and ultimately making it easy for organizations to implement document accessibility across the board, so they don’t have to select which file they’re going to make accessible due to potential budget constraints, as an example.

AD: A word of advice for businesses out there facing the approaching deadlines?

AS: Start early. The most expensive conversation you are ever going to have with an organization that is looking to help you with your accessibility needs is the first one. Once you’ve implemented a strategy, not just for documents, but websites as well, and physical and environmental accessibility, that’s the scariest day. The ongoing accessibility costs are actually quite manageable, but you’ve got to build a strategy, you can’t do this in an ad-hoc fashion and expect it to be cost-effective and sustainable going forward. It is really about building this out, planning what you’re going to keep on your website, what matters, using Google analytics, for example, to see who’s accessing your content, and, ultimately, deploying a long-term solution, to ensure all of your content is accessible going forward. Not just because of the deadline, the deadline is just a line in the sand. This is something that everyone needs to be thinking about at all times, and it’s very manageable once you get experts in place to help you and learn from the experience that we’ve seen with other organization.

AD:  Thank you very much for your time, and best of luck with your new endeavors.

AS: Thank you.

(Instrumental Music)

AD: That was Adam Spencer, PDF accessibility expert and globally recognized leader in the accessibility industry.

I am Andreea Demirgian, thank you for listening to Open Mic, the Accessible Podcast.  If you have a question related to accessibility, we can help you find an answer.  Leave a comment on our website or send us a message at . We welcome your feedback on the issues already covered by previous shows. If you have found this episode relevant, please comment and share it with your friends. Help us tell the world that accessibility matters!”