Are you swapping PDF for Word?

Have you been advised to replace PDF documents with Word, because Word is more accessible?

Before you swap your PDF content for Word documents, make sure you understand the implications. There are four issues to consider:

  • Using 'accessibility supported' technologies
  • Making a WCAG conformance claim
  • Screen reader user preferences
  • Document design

Using 'accessibility supported' technologies

Australian websites must meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. To do this, they must use accessibility supported technologies.

Technologies are accessibility supported if they work with assistive technologies (like screen readers), and the accessibility features of operating systems, browsers and plug-ins. The guidelines say:

This means that the way that the technology is used has been tested for interoperability with users' assistive technology.

Testing for interoperability is more than just "I downloaded a screen reader and it worked for me" or "My friend uses JAWS and Word works for her". It involves testing different types of assistive technology, on different operating systems, across different devices.

Word is not an accessibility supported technology

Word hasn't been tested. So even if you've made your document as accessible as possible, and it passes Word's accessibility checker, you can't claim conformance to WCAG 2.0 if this is the only format you've published the content in.

PDF has some accessibility support

While Word hasn't been tested for accessibility support, PDF has. The Australian Government funded two studies, in 2010 and 2013.

The first found some problems with the technology, but the main problem was poor document design. And users weren't comfortable interacting with PDF files. The second found the technology had improved, but there were problems with PDF on mobile devices.

In mid-2017 Adobe announced increased support for PDF on mobile. But it acknowledged two problems: structural information about lists and tables isn't read properly by screen readers. Adobe said they are "working on support for structural elements in upcoming releases".

So if you're concerned about conforming to the guidelines, it might be best to stick with PDF rather than switch to Word.

Update June 2019: these problems are still unresolved.

Advice from the Digital Transformation Agency

The Digital Transformation Agency advises government on digital best practice. It says:

Microsoft Word formats (.doc and .docx) don’t conform to WCAG 2.0. Additionally they can be difficult to view on mobile devices. Don’t publish Word documents on the web on their own. Provide the information on an HTML page as well. If this isn’t possible, create an accessible PDF and publish both non-HTML formats from a landing page that summarises the document. Make Word documents accessible to everyone even if you are emailing them internally.

Of course, PDF has limitations so the Agency also advises:

Only publish a PDF if there is a strong user need... If you make a PDF try to also publish in HTML. Publish the non-HTML format as a secondary source of the information... If you don’t publish an HTML version, be sure to publish an HTML summary on a landing page — and provide contact details for users who are unable to access the PDF. In all cases, you should follow guidance to make accessible PDFs.

Making a WCAG conformance claim

A conformance claim is a statement saying you've met all the requirements of the WCAG standard at a particular level: A, AA or AAA. You don't have to make a conformance claim. But if you do, you must follow the rules for conformance. And one of those is ensuring you use accessibility supported technologies.

So if some of your content is only offered in Word documents, you can't make a conformance claim. And if some of your content is only offered in PDF, you can't make a claim — yet. But you may be able to in future once the PDF technology is improved for mobiles.

Screen reader user preferences

Despite the status of Word documents, anecdotal evidence suggests some screen reader users prefer them over PDF. There may be a few reasons for this:

  • Past experience of PDF wasn't very good
  • Ability to edit the document is desirable
  • The format is familiar — many of us use documents at work.

Improving document design

While Word and PDF technologies are not as accessible as HTML, it's still important to make sure the content they contain is accessible. Accessibility of the technology, and the content within it, are two separate issues.

To improve the design of your PDF or Word documents, see:

And for some tips on cutting back on documents, see our article Reducing reliance on PDF documents online.


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