Three Steps to Better PDF Accessibility

There are 60 million people with disabilities in the US banner by Yahoo! Accessibility Lab on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA licenseWhen students compose assignments, I expect them to pay attention to accessibility in addition to the usual issues of content and format. After all, even the most brilliant document will be unsuccessful if readers cannot access it.

When students are turning in PDF files, the basic process is to create the document in a word processor and then use that word processor file to generate a PDF. To guide this process, students can use any one of dozens of checklists and resources for help. In particular, the Checklist for Making Accessible Microsoft Office and PDF Documents from Johns Hopkins is thorough and includes links to additional information.

The information in such checklists can be overwhelming, however, especially for students who resist the additional step of ensuring accessibility. To simplify the process, I focus on these three steps in my instructions to students:

  1. Use built-in tools for document styles.
    Word processors have built-in style templates for a document’s title, headings, and lists. Screen readers  – software applications that assist sight-impaired users access what is on the computer by means that are not sight-dependent  – look for these templates as a key to the organization of a document. If the document has created its own style markers (say, using a bold, 12-point font for primary headings), the screen reader won’t recognize that information as headings. Beyond making documents accessible for screen readers, the built-in tools create a professional design without any extra formatting work.
  2. Choose meaningful names for hyperlinks.
    Screen readers read all of the links in a document in a kind of menu. These links are read without the surrounding text that provides their context. To ensure that your readers find the right hyperlink, use the name of the document that a hyperlink connects to, rather than vague text like “Click Here.” Because of the way that screen readers read the links, “Click Here” doesn’t make sense since the context is missing. Basically, readers have no idea where “Click Here” will take them.
  3. Use Save As PDF… and never Print to PDF.
    If a PDF does not include text (words and other characters), screen readers don’t know how to interpret the information. That’s the problem with the Print to PDF command: it saves an image of the document rather than the text. The resulting PDF may look the same to someone with sight, but the screen reader can’t use it. Additionally, any special features like embedded hyperlinks will be gone in a document created with the Print to PDF command. Instead, always use the Save As PDF command, which maintains text recognition and features like embedded hyperlink. For extensive information on how to save your documents, I recommend PDF Accessibility: Converting Documents to PDF from WebAIM. Microsoft also has instructions on how to Create Accessible PDFs.

There is much more that can be done to make a document fully accessible, but this bare minimum goes a long way toward ensuring that someone gets at least the basics of what the document is trying to communicate. For other ways that I address access, you can read details on how I tell students about accessibility in my courses as well as how I ask students to crowdsource accessibility documents for the course.

Do you have any activities or instructions that you use to talk about accessibility with students? Tell me about them in the comments below. I’m always eager to find new resources I can use in class.

 

 

Photo credit: There are 60 million people with disabilities in the US banner by Yahoo! Accessibility Lab on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA license.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Online Trip Report Assignment

null by Beryl Chan on Flickr, used under public domainIn the workplace, employees write trip reports to document what happened during a business trip. Some companies use those reports to show how the goals for the trip were met. Others use them to share what happened with the rest of the organization. I use a Trip Report assignment in my Business Writing and in my Technical Writing classes, and it can be adapted into a website analysis assignment for a first-year composition or digital literacy course.

The trick to transforming the assignment is to rethink the idea of trips, making the excursion the writer takes into a visit to an online site, rather than a geographical destination or event. With those changes, the rest of the assignment needs only some minor phrasing adjustments.

The Assignment

This assignment is modeled on trip reports, which are used in the workplace to tell coworkers what happened or was achieved on a business trip. For this assignment, you will choose a website that you will share with everyone in the class and then report on your visit to that site by writing an online trip report.

You’ll begin the activity by deciding on a website and choosing a specific reason(s) to visit it. Think of your reason(s) to visit as your research question(s). Next, you will visit the site, looking for the information you identified as the reason for your visit. After you explore the site, you will write a trip report that explains how well the site is likely to meet the needs of people who visit it for the same reason(s) you did. You will share your trip report with the entire class. Your report will provide an analytical review or recommendation.

Step 1: Identify your search questions.

Brainstorm a series of questions related to your online visit. These questions will guide your project. Your research questions do not have to be complicated, but they should require more than a simple answer. You should be able to break the guiding question down into a series of sub-questions. Here is an example:

Instead of This Try This
Guiding Question
How much is admission to Disneyland during the first weekend of June?
Guiding Question
How much should I budget for a trip to Disneyland during the first weekend of June?

Sub-Questions

  • How much does it cost for admission?
  • How much does it cost to stay at a Disney resort? Are gratuities included?
  • How much should I budget for meals?
  • What special events will be taking place during the time I am thinking of visiting?
  • How much should I budget for special events?
  • How much should I budget for other expenses?

Step 2: Choose a website for your project.

Once you have your search questions ready, choose a site where you believe you will find the answers. You can choose any website that includes both visual and text content. Your site must meet the following criteria:

  • Appropriate for the classroom.
  • Free and open (no login required).
  • Professional (not a personal site).

Good choices for this assignment include these kinds of sites:

  • an official university site.
  • a university-related site (such as a club site).
  • a professional association’s site.
  • a nonprofit organization’s site.
  • a corporate site for a company you might work for.
  • a news media or journal site.

If you are unsure whether the site fits the questions that you have identified, skim through the site to determine whether it includes the kind of information that you are looking for.

Step 3: Familiarize yourself with the characteristics and format for your report.

Read the following resources for information on writing trip reports:

Additionally, read the details on memo format, since your project should look like a trip report from the workplace. You can also read about memo format in The Business Writer’s Handbook or The Handbook of Technical Writing.

Step 4: Go on your trip: visit the website, and gather information for your report.

With the preliminary work taken care of, you can begin work researching the questions you identified above in Step 1 on the website. Check out the pages linked to the site’s main navigation. Browse the information on the site, looking for the answers to your question and paying attention to the supporting details and other related information.

To provide evidence of the answers to your search questions in your trip report, you identify specific details. Take notes on what you find and gather any materials that you can use as you write your report. For instance, you might take some screenshots, copy important passages, and note important page links. Remember to keep track of where your information comes from so you can cite your sources in your report.

Step 5: Write your Trip Report.

Write your trip report in your word processor, using memo format. The length of your report will vary, according to your search questions and the information you found on the website. There is not a minimum or maximum page length. Write as much as you need to, but be sure to include all of the required information.

Your trip report should include the following information:

  • the goals for the trip (your website visit).
  • what you actually found during your visit.
  • the lessons learned from your visit:
    • What made the site a good (or bad) resource for your search questions?
    • What features on the site indicated that the creators were thinking of you as an audience?
    • What about the site worked well?
    • Would you recommend the site to someone with similar questions? Why, or why not?

Include concrete details from the notes you took during your website visit to support the information in your trip report. You can quote or paraphrase information from the site. Insert the screenshots you took to illustrate your points (be sure to crop out irrelevant information in the images).

Once you have a complete draft, check the information in your report to determine whether you have included the answers to your search questions and the information required for the report, listed above. When you are sure you have met the requirements, proofread your report and turn it in.

                                                                                                                                                                                               

Closing Thoughts

This trip report assignment upgrades the basic analytical essay. Students will still complete an analysis project, but the trip report format adds interest for students already looking ahead to the workplace. Further, by asking them to work with a different genre, students necessarily get beyond the comfort of the five-paragraph theme.

You can further adapt this assignment if you ask students to take online field trips. For instance, you might ask students to explore a genre or period of art on an art museum website. They can report their findings in a trip report.

Do you have unusual writing assignments that work well for you? I would love to hear about what you have tried and what’s worked for you. Just leave me a comment below!

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.