Amex woes highlight common PDF accessibility problem

9th April 2008

Recent reported accessibility problems with American Express' web statements exemplify a common challenge for financial service websites and those reliant on PDFs.

American Express has come under criticism, and potential legal action, for the lack of accessibility of its credit card website. 

As reported on the BBC's Moneybox programmeLink opens in a new window  last week, a blind customer of American Express credit cards found that Amex's change in the presentation of its online credit card statements from HTML to PDF format effectively prevented him from accessing his financial information online. 

Despite promises from Amex, changes have not occurred, and the customer is now considering taking legal action against the credit card provider.

Presenting financial information online in an accessible format is always slightly more challenging due to the fact that it is often best presented in a tabular format

For the data tables to make sense when read through a screen reader, there are some special tags that need to be applied to the column and row headers to provide orientation to the user, so they can interpret the data. 

This is a relatively simple adaptation to a data table that many financial organisations online provide, including American Express in its previous version of the client servicing website.

The problem occurred with its change to presenting the statement details in PDF format three months ago. 

The data read out by the screen reader is not in a logical order and is impossible to interpret. 

Although PDF documents and data tables can be tagged properly to facilitate correct interpretation by screen readers, this has not been implemented by Amex.

In our experience providing web accessibility auditsLink opens in a new window , this is often the case with PDF documents. 

Although Adobe has provided improved the ability for PDF documents to be marked up accessibly, it does require some extra effort that falls slightly outside the typical training of HTML coders or content contributors. 

As a result, there are many inaccessible PDF documents on otherwise accessible sites. PDFs are the Achilles heel of website accessibility for many sites. 

It does not have to be that way. The best place to start with a PDF document is to ensure that the source document being converted to PDF has been created in an accessible way. 

Even still, it is worth checking things such as the reading order and interpretation of data table cells are correct, and the correct tags are applied to the PDF document. 

There is also plenty of information from the Adobe website that will help site, and a good place to start is Adobe's own guide to creating accessible PDFsLink opens in a new window

There is also free software from Adobe to convert the PDFs to standard HTML which is more likely to be interpreted correctly by the screen reader.

American Express is well aware of the problem and, although overdue, I am sure that it will be resolved in the near future. 

As for the many other sites with PDFs, this is likely to take much longer.

- Chris Rourke

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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.

The user experience is the next competitive battleground.

Jerry Gregoire, former CIO, Dell Computers.