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    In many cases, the laws related to accessibility have important implications for the customer communications you provide to the public. Consumers routinely get credit card statements, insurance policy declarations, bank statements, healthcare information, and other documents via mail and electronic formats that are important to their financial and physical health. For those in the US and Canada who are blind or partially sighted, it is nearly impossible to read and understand these types of documents without assistance from another person or an assistive device.

    This reality has led visual accessibility to be included as part of disability legislation that requires companies to offer alternate formats for documents, such as Braille, large print, audio, eText (electronic text that is convertible into several accessible formats), as well as accessible formats for online PDF, Word, and HTML documents.

    Document Accessibility and Regulatory Compliance

    Laws in the US, Canada, and other jurisdictions supporting individuals with visual disabilities have been around for quite some time now. The laws require that documents be made accessible to those with visual impairments in certain situations. These laws include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Sections 504 and 508 in the United States, and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (AODA) in Canada. Ultimately, these laws are intended to ensure that people with all levels of ability can access all public accommodations.

    Circumstances that may trigger an accessibility compliance obligation vary. However, whether the trigger is regulatory compliance or an organization's desire to ensure a quality experience for every customer, as a document professional, you will benefit from an understanding of accessible documents and what it takes to produce them.

    A first step is to consider the type of business communication documents in your organization requiring accessibility. They can typically be categorized as:
    • Transactional documents, such as monthly bills, invoices, account statements, and trade confirmations, to name a few, that are cyclical in nature and made available to clients on an event-driven or periodic basis (i.e., monthly, quarterly, or annually). Content is unique to each client and is confidential in nature.
    • Static documents containing content that is the same for all recipients. One identical copy can be made available to all and contains no personalized data related to the viewer. These notices, general information circulars, service or product explanations, and brochures are intended for mass distribution and wide availability.
    The mix of documents your organization regularly sends will impact how difficult it is to comply with regulations. For example, personalized transactional documents can present a much greater challenge than static documents when it comes to making them accessible.

    The two broad delivery channels that organizations employ to distribute business documents to clients are (1) traditional print and mail and (2) electronic online formats (e.g., on websites, via email, SMS, apps on mobile devices, or through other methods). Electronic versions of business documents are typically produced in a PDF format.

    Regardless of the document types generated or the distribution channels deployed, enterprises that do not produce or convert business documents into accessible formats risk alienating or losing customers as well as potentially inviting costly litigation.

    To equally serve all your customers and constituents, business documents may need to be produced in accessible formats, such as:
    • Braille documents produced on paper
    • Large print versions produced on paper
    • Audio formats produced on a CD or made available online
    • eText formats produced on a CD or made available online
    Additionally, as more partially sighted and blind users consume documents electronically, accessible PDF and accessible HTML are becoming increasingly popular as electronic formats to meet compliance standards. Accessible PDF documents can be made available on request, downloaded, and used in conjunction with in-home or mobile assistive technology devices and applications to produce any desired accessible format.

    Developing a Strategy

    For many years, the only way to create accessible documents was by converting standard documents into an accessible format using a manual process that involved adding tags and other accessibility features to a document, making it readable by assistive technologies. Over time, international standards were developed for accessible PDFs, Word files and other documents, and accessible websites. Moreover, software solutions now exist that automate and replace the manual tagging process for producing accessible versions of these documents.

    For many organizations, deploying accessible PDFs and other accessible document types represents entirely new territory. Developing the right strategy will require a detailed analysis of applicable regulations, an examination of your organization's unique document environment, and a careful assessment of the tools and processes you will need to ensure success.

    Ernie Crawford is the President/CEO and founder of Crawford Technologies. Ernie has more than 30 years of senior marketing and management experience in the high-volume electronic printing market.