by Andrew Kirkpatrick

 Comments (25)


November 30, 2010

This post is subject to Adobe's Terms of Use.

There was an important ruling today on accessibility from the Canadian Federal Court that is worth a read.

A blind woman filed suit against the government of Canada stating that the government “violated her rights under section 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982”. In short the findings of the court were that many web sites for the Canadian government are not meeting the Common Look and Feel standard (CLF). The Court found that the government should update the CLF standard to utilize WCAG 2.0 instead of WCAG 1.0 and that there is sufficient evidence of compliance problems that need to be addressed that the Court found that the applicant was discriminated against due to the need to access information and apply for employment via these websites. The Court is allowing the government 15 months to come into compliance.

There are a couple of points raised in the ruling and in a Globe and Mail online article (Court orders Ottawa to make websites accessible to blind) that I would like to clarify. The points are as follows:

  • From the ruling: “The applicant testified that in June 2007 she attempted to access information on the consumer price index and unemployment rate from the Statistics Canada website. She stated that actual statistics were, however, only available in “pdf” format, which is not accessible to screen reader technology.”
  • From the ruling: [reported by a witness for the applicant] “…for example, “flash” is a technology that cannot be read by many screen readers. If a website uses “flash” technology, the user will not be able to access that content…”
  • From the Globe and Mail article: “Many blind people use screen readers, computer software that translates electronic text into audio. But the readers aren’t foolproof — for one thing, most can’t decipher PDF files, a format often used to publish documents online.”

None of these is accurate. Even in 2007, most screen readers could read PDF and Flash capably. In fact, the screen reader used by the applicant was capable of reading both PDF and Flash. The points above indicate that most screen readers can’t read PDF or Flash, but it is more accurate to say that most can, including JAWS, Window-Eyes, NVDA, and others. Adobe provides a “read out loud” feature in Adobe Reader that provides basic access to PDF documents, but most users who are blind will depend on a more full-featured assistive technology.

This is not to suggest that the applicant didn’t encounter challenges, she clearly did. Authors of HTML web pages, as well as authors of PDF documents and Flash content need to make sure that they follow accessibility standards, and if authors don’t, users suffer.

We have techniques available for complying with WCAG 2.0 when authoring Flash, HTML, and techniques for PDF are in the works (there are training resources available for PDF at Adobe’s accessibility site in the meantime). The information that authors need is available, this ruling will undoubtedly stimulate an increased interest in these sources of information.

Adobe is committed to helping authors comply with accessibility requirements, whether using HTML, PDF, or Flash. Here’s a few links to relevant information:


  • By James Craig - 6:10 AM on November 30, 2010  

    Any update on the Mac accessibility efforts you mentioned in March? I’d love to test a beta of the accessible SWF player or Acrobat Reader on Mac, if you’re ready to show something. Thanks.

    • By akirkpat - 7:00 PM on November 30, 2010  

      James, we’re not sharing any early builds publicly at this time. You’ll be the first to know for the Mac version…

  • By Mika Pyyhkala - 8:31 AM on November 30, 2010  

    Yes, its true that both Flash and PDF can be made accessible. But by and large when I have encountered Flash on web pages, it has not been accessible. In other words, I had disproportionantly more difficulty with Flash or PDF documents and content than standard HTML documents and content.

    I think that many blind people have the same experience.

    Yes, absolutely, PDF and Flash can be made accesible. But by and large there are still large scale accessibility issues with these content and application delivery mechanisms.

    There has been progress. For instance, quite often now, the Play button on YouTube videos is properly labeled. However, at the same time, there are still numerous unlabeled buttons.

    I also recently was prompted to update my Flash player on a Windows XP pc, but the two buttons in the updater were not labeled. I had to write to one of your colleagues, and he did send me direct links to update my IE and FF flash players. I don’t know if this is just a glitch with my machine as I have not heard much about this particular issue with the updater. But given my experience with PDF and Flash…unfortunately, it just fit the mold of what I have observed in the wild with most but certainly not all sites.

    • By akirkpat - 7:05 PM on November 30, 2010  

      Yes, your experience in finding inaccessible PDF and Flash on the web is not surprising, but this is part of the point I’m making in my post. Authors need to ensure that their content meets accessibility standards.

      To be sure, there are improvements to be made to Flash Player and Reader, and we’ve identified improvements on the Player roadmap that will be in a future release, but the point that I’m objecting against in the ruling and the article is that “most screen readers do not support PDF or Flash” – this is simply not true.

    • By Jerry Weichbrodt - 6:17 PM on December 1, 2010  

      I have seen a fair amount of comment from blind users about those inaccessible buttons for updating the Flash player. Using JAWS, I typically hear no text description for the buttons or perhaps a single-letter description that does next to nothing to clarify what the button does. It does desperately need fixing, and I have seen comment from screen reader manufacturers to the effect that only Adobe can make the correction.

      • By akirkpat - 6:20 PM on December 1, 2010  

        Jerry, There is an issue with the installer, that is true. There is an accessible installer for the Flash Player that can be found at – select the MSI installer for the browser of your choosing and you’ll have a much better experience until the other installer is fixed.

        • By Jerry Weichbrodt - 10:11 PM on December 2, 2010  

          Thanks for this. It’s good to know and I suspect is a well-kept secret. That page talks about requiring licenses and so on, so that’s a bit off-putting. Still, it’s good to know there is a way to install Flash while actually being able to see what you’re doing. I trust the installers also work to update from an already installed version on one’s system.

  • By Denis Boudreau - 8:58 PM on November 30, 2010  

    Spot on Andrew. Very good comments.

    People (myself included) have been very critical of Flash and PDF for the longest time. Let’s stop blaming the tools and starting blaming those who use them. This is where the real problems lie.

    It’s about time we set the record straight and point towards the real guilty here: the authors who simply don’t know how to use these tool with accessibility and inclusion in mind.

    I’m not saying Adobe tools are perfect as there is always room for improvement, but still, we have come a long way and it has been proved that tools like Flash and Acrobat can produce accessible content if the developers using them actually:

    * care enough to go the extra mile,
    * understand what each tool should be used for, and
    * know what the hell they’re doing.

    The Jodhan case is very important for accessibility (especially for us, Canadians), but the more I think about it, the more convinced I get that the bases were flawed.

  • By Steve Buell - 9:32 PM on November 30, 2010  

    She said she was using HPR 3.04

  • By Chris Moore - 2:20 PM on December 1, 2010  

    I look forward to Adobe bringing out accessible versions of their products for the Mac and will hopefully work well with VoiceOver. Any chance you can bring out a VO friendly version of Dreamwever too?

    Perhaps the authoring tools for Flash and PDFs should be forced to insist authors insert accessibility content. When creating a label or an images and table headers etc. This would ensure authors then create accessible content as there would be no room for them to skip these basic requirements.

    As for the reader within Adobe Acrobat, it is pretty damn awful and very slow. Better integration with OS supported screen readers (such as VoiceOver for the Mac) would have been preferred.

    Currently I have ditched Acrobat and use Apple’s built in PDF viewer as it is more reliable and accessible. Sadly it does not cope with all PDF content which in includes some interactive PDF content.

    Please make accessibility a matter of priority as blindness can happen to anyone and it seems to be on the increase. I myself went blind earlier this year and never expected to face so many barriers in 2010

  • By Lui Greco - 7:06 PM on December 1, 2010  

    Dear Andrew:

    I agree pretty much with almost everything you’ve said. The Adobe sweet of applications are not accessible however, if used correctly PDF files can at best be navigable by persons using adaptive technology. Most of the responsibility does lie squarely with content authors however, that’s not to say that Adobe is not at fault.

    A suggestion was put forward above which recommended building modest accessibility into the authoring tools requiring that basic complienct compliance be systematically required.

    As for flash? I’m sorry but I can’t accept the rhetoric Adobe is putting forward. If a developper chooses to incorporate flash into their applications, one may as well write it off as far as accessibility goes.

    • By akirkpat - 7:32 PM on December 1, 2010  

      I appreciate your feedback, and we don’t need to agree entirely, but I would like to know more about what you are thinking.

      When you say “the Adobe Suite of applications” – which applications are you referring to?

      When you say “if used correctly PDF files can at best be navigable by persons using adaptive technology” – we can make PDF documents that meet WCAG 2.0 standards just as you can make HTML documents that meet WCAG 2.0. We can provide table, list, heading, and other structure to allow users to interact with content in PDF in nearly identical ways that people interact with HTML documents. What is missing from “at best be navigable”?

  • By Catherine Fichten - 8:30 PM on December 1, 2010  

    Most of us “producing” PDF documents are NOT adaptive technologists or even consider ourselves “producers” of pdf documents. As a college professor, I simply “print” to pdf so that the documents I write are stable and usable across different platforms.

    When I went to the sites suggested in this article I found that not only did I have to read reams of text, but I also did not understand much of what I read. And here lies the crux of the problem. Many creators of pdf documents are NOT adaptive technologists – or technologists of any kind.

    To ensure the accessibility of PDF documents we need products that create accessible documents out of the box, without requiring us to read lengthy manuals and instructions that we do not understand .

    • By akirkpat - 8:38 PM on December 1, 2010  

      I hear you – it is an easy transition for someone who creates web pages with HTML, but there is a learning curve. However, there are some good resources for you. We also have a Quick Reference Guide that is available in English and French which helps people who are familiar with using Word and just want to know what are the top 5 things that they can do to make their PDF documents highly accessible. Full compliance with WCAG 2.0 is more work for any type of document, but you can cover 90% of the issues in a very small number of steps.

  • By Bob - 8:51 PM on December 1, 2010  

    and then there are those of us that use systems other than mac or windows and while Linux will open a pdf or flash try using Orca or Emacspeak or other open source software with it. and if you are for what ever reason required to use Unix or BsD or any one of the other operating systems you are generally ignored completely.

    the law says to be accessible it must be operating system neutral, at least in the USA.


    • By akirkpat - 8:55 PM on December 1, 2010  

      The law in the US doesn’t say that, but this is one of the benefits of PDF being an open standard – anyone can develop a PDF reader that supports accessibility.

  • By Jason - 6:35 AM on December 6, 2010  

    I find i am constantly trying to transcribe PDF to another format, and the absolute MASS of solutions to do this that are on the market surely indicates others are having issues too.

    it is very well to blame the designer of the docuemnt, but, as has been pointed out.. nobody apon nobody will bother looking at accessibility if they have to read more than making a simple PDF print or other such document.

    I have never found flash accessible at all by the way, please send me to an accessible version so i can experience this…

    software manufacturers must take the lead on this and not pass the buck to the ignoratn consumer. there must be inbuilt and forced accessibility for me to ever consider PDF or flash etc as any form of option whatsoever… and i will push this point in every orkplace and fourm possible.

    I note, the AU government has also just released a report on PDF not being accessible..

    even when e can take it from PDF to other formats, the time, energy and quality issues make Adobe a poor experience. Developers aught listen not referr to more documents in their defence.

    furhter, due to Adobe updates etc, i was required to update zoom text 7.1 to interact with it. this advice came directly from the blindness agencies and zoom text themselves…

    I get very angry when multi billion dollar organisations claim powerlessness… and attempt to say they are ‘working on it’ etc…


    • By akirkpat - 8:51 AM on December 6, 2010  

      I don’t think that I’m blaming the document designer entirely, but the author does need to learn how to deal with accessibility. We offer different documents to help authors learn about accessibility, and I don’t think that it is any harder to learn about than HTML accessibility is. The principles are pretty much the same.

      If you are looking for an example of accessible Flash, try this one:

  • By Vivien Palcic - 2:37 PM on December 6, 2010  

    I went through the process of “upgrading” to Adobe Reader 10.0.0, only to find that, as with 9.x (I don’t recall the exact number), the software crashed when I tried accessing larger documents which were recently sent to me. I am presented with a dialog offering to send an error report, which I have done. This doesn’t occur when protected mode is enabled, as it was by default when I installed 10.0.0, but leaving it on, I can’t access the document either. What’s the point of bringing out a new version when it remains this unstable?

  • By Mark - 7:00 PM on January 19, 2011  

    I have a Flash application which has to have certain accessibilities built into it for the handicap. The accessibility class in Flash works fairly well with JAWS screen reader for Flash apps which work within a browser. However, if I publish and execute the application as a windows project the screen reader doesn’t acknowledge the description properties. I am using CS3 and Flash Player 9.??

    Does Flash accessibility class not work in Flash executables?