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Addressing disability at McGill

Since Teaching and Learning Services now has an accessible version of the Course Outline Guide available on its web page, we thought this would be an opportune time to provide some information about disability at McGill University and the value of accessible documents.

Providing accessible course material is an essential part of providing inclusive education. However, it is common for educators to assume that if they have no visually impaired students in their class, then document accessibility is not really a concern. The problem with this is twofold; first, it conflates the notion of disability to only those with visible and recognizable disabilities (sometimes referred to as “traditional” disabilities); second, it incorrectly assumes that accessible documents are used exclusively by students with visual impairments or students who otherwise fit this notion of “traditional” disability. In reality, a wide range of students use accessible documents, and by adopting accessible practices, we are improving the learning experience of all students, not just those with disabilities.

Looking at the McGill context, students with visual impairments make up roughly 1% of the students who utilize the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) where the majority are registered based on “invisible” disabilities such as mental health issues, learning disabilities, ADHD, and chronic health conditions. What is important to keep in mind with these students is that many of them also benefit from using assistive text-to-speech (TTS) software that requires accessible documents. For example, a student with dyslexia can address barriers related to processing written text by rendering it as audio. In essence, creating an audiobook using a computer synthesized voice rather than a pre-recorded reader. The average OSD student has no visible markers of disability, but may be relying on assistive software in similar ways as students with more “traditional” disabilities. Ultimately, this means that we cannot only concern ourselves with document accessibility in the moments when students with visible or outwardly recognizable disabilities are present in the classroom.

What is an accessible document?

In the broadest sense, an accessible document is one that allows all potential to readers to autonomously access all the relevant and essential information without losing meaning and without having to rely on institutional support. In other words, a text that every student can fully engage with, regardless of disability. An accessible document then is one that will function with assistive technologies (like screen readers and other TTS software). However, there is a gradient when it comes to document accessibility. Simply put, some digital documents are more accessible than others.

On the least accessible end, we have simple PDFs produced through scanning articles or book chapters. Generally these come out as “image-only” PDFs, meaning that the computer (and by extension, assistive software) does not recognize that text is present. So users of screen readers and other TTS software will not be able to have the text read to them and engage with text audibly.

It is worth noting that these image-only PDFs are a step forward in terms of accessibility when compared to only offering physical texts. For example, offering digital files can ease burdens on students with physical disabilities, allowing them to easily access required readings without having to carry a heavy load of textbooks and course packs across campus. Beyond users of assistive technology, providing these digital copies of text also benefits students without disabilities by making these texts more portable and easily accessible (through web platforms like myCourses). But for students who require assistive technologies, this type of file presents the same burdens as only having access to physical texts.

The next step up from image-only PDFs are files where the text is recognizable by a computer (allowing for functions like word search and copy and paste to be used) but the document itself contains none of the “meta-data” that gives the document structure. In other words, this type of file has no way of distinguishing the different parts of the texts (e.g., a chapter title is indistinguishable from the actual prose that make up the text). The issue with this lack of meta-data (referred to as “tags” in PDFs), is that it offers no way for a visually impaired user to easily navigate a document. The presence of “tags” to distinguish headings and subheadings allows visually impaired users to move through a text with a few keystrokes to find relevant information without having to let the computer read the text from the beginning until it comes to the sections the student needs access to at that moment.

How can I tell if my PDF is missing tags?

The easiest method to check if your PDF has tags is to open the document in Adobe Acrobat Reader and check the documents properties. You can do this by clicking on the file menu and then clicking on properties. In the next window, you will be able to see whether the document contains tags or not. In the “Description” tab under the “Advanced” heading, there is an attribute called “tagged PDF.” If your PDF includes tags, the tagged PDF attribute will indicate “yes.” If it lacks tags, then it will indicate “No.” Figure 1 highlights where to look for this information.

Figure 1: A screenshot of the “Document Properties” window in Adobe Acrobat DC highlighting the area that indicates whether our PDF has tags

It should be noted that this level accessibility in a PDF can be functional enough for many students who use TTS software. Since the majority of the students who are using TTS programs are also interacting with the text visually, they are not generally interacting with the meta-data embedded in a tagged PDF. However, there are some important limits here. Firstly, as I previously pointed out, for visually impaired students the presence of structured tags helps communicate the structure of a text that is generally presented visually (by distinguishing headings and different sections of a text) and makes the document more easily navigable. Secondly, this type of PDF is often created by taking what was originally an image-only PDF (obtained through a scan) and running it through a program (like the professional version of Adobe Acrobat) that runs a type of scan called an Optical Character Recognition (OCR). The issue with OCR scans is that they can be imperfect. The accuracy of an OCR scan depends very much on the visual quality of the original document. The presence of any smudging or fuzziness or blurring will result in misrecognized words or phrases and possibly entirely missed sections of the text. But even in high quality image only PDFs, errors and misrecognized words are still common. More visually complex documents, such as textbooks with side panels, magnify these problems since a simple OCR has no way to distinguish these different blocks of text and therefore will not always read them in a logical order.

This type of PDF does represent an improvement in terms of accessibility. It allows the majority of TTS users to engage with the text audibly (though with imperfect results). In addition, just as image-only PDFs represent an improvement in accessibility for students without disabilities, PDFs at this higher level of accessibility have a higher level of benefit to all students regardless of disability. The ability to word search and copy and paste on its own can greatly increase any student’s ability to study, review, and create better notes. However, the lack of tagging still places an undue burden on students with low vision.

Highest level of accessibility: a benefit for all

The highest level of accessibility for PDFs then includes both recognizable text as well as the embedded tags that give the document structure beyond the visual look of the document. It is possible to take an image-only PDF created from a scan, run it through an OCR and add the necessary tagging to give the document a coherent structure. However, this can be a tedious and time-consuming process, requiring a degree of technical knowledge and access to a robust PDF editing program for both the OCR and manual addition of tags. Adobe Acrobat Pro DC does have an “autotag” function that attempts to automatically add tags to a document. However, in the same vein as OCR scans, this is an imperfect solution. For simple documents with basic formatting, it can achieve good results. But even in this case, the document will need to be manually verified, and autotagging does not resolve other accessibility issues, like missing “alternative text” (alt text) for images. Alt text is also an essential aspect of document accessibility, but I am not fully covering it here. The University of Minnesota’s Accessible U is a great resource to consult for more information about the importance of alt text and for tutorials on how to include it on different platforms. 

Because of the difficulty in converting scanned material into fully accessible materials, it is a best practice to avoid distributing scanned material to students, and instead rely on already accessible digital files. If you do have access to the professional version of Adobe Acrobat DC and are interested in how to add tags to a document, you can read more about it in the Adobe Acrobat User Guide. In addition, if you use the built in accessibility checker in Adobe Acrobat Pro, each issue that is highlighted will also link you to the Adobe help pages with information on how to resolve the particular problem.

The crucial point here is that when we aim for the highest level of accessibility, we are improving access for the greatest number of students. Students who do not have visual impairments benefit from these fully accessible tagged PDFs because they also have the benefits that accompany the less accessible versions of PDFs. As well, if we proactively plan to have this highest level of accessibility even without having visually impaired students, it means we have already embedded accessible practices in the classroom, allowing us to be less reactive in accommodating students. This avoids delays in allowing the student to fully access their material since there is no wait required for texts to be processed for them, which in turn prevents them from immediately falling behind the rest of the class. This also minimizes the amount of institutional support a visually impaired student will require when attending your course, giving them greater control over their own educational experience.

How can I ensure I am providing accessible texts?

The first thing you can do as an instructor or course designer is to avoid manual scans of readings you want to distribute to the class. Instead, try to provide material that has a ready-made digital version. For instance, if you wish to include a particular journal article in your course outline, make sure that a digital version of the article is available through the McGill library databases. For the most part, these digital files will meet that highest level of fully tagged PDF accessibility. There are some limits here though; there are PDFs available through these databases that are missing some accessibility features. As well, the presence of some forms of Digital Rights Management (DRM) embedded in some of the file types available through the library can interfere with the functioning of some accessibility software. However, these issues are more manageable for a disability office. Adding the required tags to a PDF is easier with a digital first version of the file (as opposed to a digital version created by a scan of physical copy). And issues revolving around DRM can be remedied by using different software. In short, this reduces the interventions that are made on behalf of students requiring greater accessibility.

For course materials you need to produce yourself, like a course outline, the easiest option is to use the course outline template offered by McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS). This template has been reviewed to ensure that it meets important accessibility standards and it can easily be converted into an accessible PDF. If this template does not meet your needs and instead you feel it is important to produce your own from scratch, then it is essential that you follow the best practices for creating accessible Word documents. This includes the proper use of headings, rather than just relying on visual difference by only increasing font size and bolding, as well as using descriptive and meaningful link titles instead of straight url addresses or the generic “click here.” Additionally, we can use the accessibility checker built into the newest versions of Microsoft Word to highlight potential accessibility issues in your document and to provide the necessary information to correct them. Microsoft also offers a series of short and easily digestible accessibility tutorial videos for Word 365 that go over some easy to implement practices when creating Word documents. Following these best practices when creating the initial Word document allows for the easy creation of already accessible PDF files. By adopting these simple practices, we can improve the educational experience of all students regardless of their level of disability!

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