Print this page

Shannon Kelly

  PDF Accessibility


Accessibility and Government-Produced PDFs

Tell a Friend

Government agencies are huge creators of high-volume personal communications and it’s crucial that these digital documents are accessible to users of all abilities.
Image: Government communication documents – from tax notices to health and benefits statements – need to be offered in a digital format that’s accessible as well as portable and secure
Image: Government communication documents – from tax notices to health and benefits statements – need to be offered in a digital format that’s accessible as well as portable and secure.

Government agencies are huge creators of high-volume personal communications. Tax documents, benefits and health statements, and other critical information is distributed everyday – and the U.S. federal government aims to deliver more and more of these digitally, cutting costs and making them easier for citizens to obtain. Yet, to reach all citizens, they need to ensure these digital documents are accessible to everyone – including the visually impaired.

Through the accessibility conferences and events I’ve attended – including Freedom Scientific’s recent Annual Accessibility Showcase – I’ve had a chance to speak to many government audiences. They’re wrestling with how to best create equal access in the digital documents they distribute – as well as meet compliance with their own Section 508 accessibility standards - which is why I wanted to address the issue here. Government accessibility, after all, is about to become even more important, as the U.S. federal government initiates its ICT Refresh – an update of the Section 508 Standards and Guidelines, issued under the amended Rehabilitation Act.

What will the changes to Section 508 cover?
Section 508 standards mandate federal government agencies on how they procure, use, develop or maintain information and electronic technology – and aims to make this information accessible to people with disabilities. The update is expected to tighten accessibility regulations further, bringing them up to standards outlined in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. It’s also expected to include a full scope of communications not currently specified including:

  • Public-facing content
  • Content that is broadly disseminated within the agency
  • Letters adjudicating any cause within the jurisdiction of the agency
  • Internal and external program and policy announcements
  • Notices of benefits, forms, questionnaires and surveys
  • Emergency notifications
  • Formal acknowledgements
  • Educational and training materials

What is expected to be exempt from covered content would include:

  • Archival copies stored or retained solely for archival purposes to preserve an exact image of a hard copy
  • Draft versions of documents

Although Section 508 is a mandate for federal government, it has had a trickle-down effect into the private sector as well. That is solely due to the procurement regulations. With federal government constituting the largest consumer of electronic and information technology, those supplying that technology must make their products, including their documents and documentation, meet Section 508 standards in order to sell it to government. So, the new refresh will apply equally to government agencies, and to companies in all industries and of all sizes that supply to them.

How can government meet these needs?
In my opinion, meeting the need for accessible digital content means two things: creating the right types of documents, and finding the most cost-saving and least invasive way to build accessibility in. With that in mind, consider two things:

1. Many of these government communication documents – from tax notices to health and benefits statements – need to be offered in a digital format that’s accessible as well as portable and secure, in order to be archived for official purposes. While HTML has become a popular way of providing many types of documentation, and has its uses in government as well, it doesn’t meet these criteria. PDFs do.

2. High-volume, personalized communications such as the ones government agencies produce aren’t created by individuals. They’re created by applications that can handle those large volumes. Individually building in accessibility manually after the fact can be expensive and time-consuming – often with extended delivery times versus the instant access through secure web portals afforded to those who don’t require an accessible digital format.

The right technology, though, can help get around these challenges. And it’s why Actuate introduced Cloud508 for federal government.

To meet the needs of government, Actuate recently announced Cloud508 – a collaborative partnership between Actuate, Braille Works and Venatôre – which was specifically designed to meet the stringent security requirements of federal government. Cloud508 automates the generation and remediation of accessible PDF documents on demand and meets Section 508 requirements and WCAG 2.0 standards for accessibility. What’s more, Cloud508, powered with Actuate technology, allows for the automation of traditional formats like Braille, large print and audio, all while reducing costs and significantly speeding up delivery time. Highlights include:

  • Automates generation/remediation of accessible PDF documents
  • Cloud-based service
  • First and only on the market, patented technology
  • Secure – meets federal government’s stringent security requirements
  • Real time conversion service
  • Designed for high volume personalized communications such as tax, health, and benefits notices
  • Section 508, WCAG 2.0 Level AA, PDF/UA compliant formats
  • Automates and streamlines production of Braille, large print and audio formats

I think it’s the answer a lot of government agencies are looking for as they search for ways to save time, resources, money, and comply with Section 508, all while providing a comparable experience to the blind and visually impaired.

For more information on Cloud508, visit


Related Resources

Blog: Accessible PDF - Enterprise Versus Desktop Accessibility Requirements | Read Shannon Kelly's Article.
Publication: Model ICT Accessibility Policy Report - ITU-G3ict Collaboration | Download PDF.
Event: First ENTELIS Seminar: Supporting the development of digital skills of persons with disabilities of all ages: Policies, strategies and tools | View Event Details.