July 22, 2020

PDF Versus HTML: Dispelling The Myths

Jen Goulden | Accessibility Compliance Specialist
enterprise content management whitepapers default

There’s no question that documents and web content need to be made accessible, but there is much debate about which formats to offer. For instance, when should organizations provide Accessible PDF and when should they focus on HTML? One reason for this ongoing debate is that there are several myths about which of these two formats is “better”.

Myth 1: HTML is more accessible than PDF

The origin of this myth is that a PDF file can be anything from a perfectly tagged, 100% compliant document to a scanned image containing no text whatsoever. Many screen reader users have experienced the frustration of opening a PDF only to be informed by their assistive technology that the file is blank because the screen reader cannot process the image. Even a text-based document sometimes looks more like a game of Scrabble when accessed via a screen reader such as JAWS or NVDA. This has led to a lot of skepticism in the blindness community that PDF documents can actually be both accessible and usable. The reality is that sometimes HTML is more accessible and at other times the opposite is true. The accessibility of the output has much more to do with the way the document was designed and how the output was generated.

Myth 2: WCAG guidelines do not apply to HTML

There is a lot of emphasis on ensuring that PDF files are WCAG compliant – and rightly so. Nonetheless, the reality is that HTML is primarily web content and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines do, in fact, apply to this format as well.

Myth 3: Screen reader users prefer HTML

On the surface, this is often the case (see Myth 1). Having said that, as truly accessible PDF files become more readily available the end-user experience should be much more positive than it has been in the past.

Apart from the myths discussed above, there are a couple of points I’d like to highlight:

  • The screen reader commands used to navigate Accessible PDF and HTML are nearly identical so that there’s really no learning curve involved in switching from one format to the other.
  • The question of which format is more appropriate for a mobile device is not specific to accessibility. It is a broader issue that affects everyone who accesses content on a smartphone or tablet.

Many factors will come into play when determining whether to make your content available in Accessible PDF or HTML. Understanding the myths and realities of Accessible PDF versus HTML can ultimately lead to a better end-user experience for all of your customers, whether they use a screen reader or not.

If you are interested in this topic and the recent changes to EU accessibility legislation and the barriers faced by blind or partially sighted individuals when accessing digital information and services. We invite you to watch our webinar series recordings:

Understanding Document Accessibility: What it is and why it should matter to your organisation

Your 6 steps to Accessibility Success: How to design and implement a successful document accessibility plan

FAQs, Tips & Techniques: Practical considerations, useful tips and new techniques for delivering high quality accessible documents