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Are PDFs and documents accessible?

Why Warwick is moving away from PDFs and documents online

Updated April 2021


What has changed?

April 2021: Following your feedback, we have updated this guidance to make it clear when PDFs and documents are acceptable online. You can now see an updated list of exceptions.


The context

The University of Warwick's website showcases the best of the University, including our research, courses and people. It's a place where anybody can come and find out vital information about us and what we offer.

Our website is open to people from all walks of life. By now you probably already know that:

  1. We have a legal responsibility to be accessible
  2. This is to help people who use our digital content in different ways
  3. And we have therefore introduced new digital guidelines

Documents and accessibility

The next step is to understand what role the humble PDF, Word, Excel and other documents play in our working lives now and in the future. How accessible (or inaccessible) are they if we upload them online?

In short, PDFs and other downloadable documents are not accessible or best-practice for our users. People with accessibility needs can really struggle with documents such as PDFs.


Flat designs

For the most part, information in a PDF will be flat, meaning the words have been rendered into an image. Flat PDFs look like pictures to a screen reader, so any visually impaired users will be excluded.

This affects people using screenreaders, but also those who use magnifiers to increase the size of the screen or zoom over 400%.

Garbled text

Even when a PDF is not flat, sometimes the PDF saving process garbles the text in the document's code. This would make a screen reader read nothing but letters, numbers, and characters.

You can see how this could cause a great amount of frustration to some people.

Inaccessible use of fonts or colours

When something is designed to look visual, it often includes different fonts or colours throughout to make it more engaging. This usually violates our guidelines for formatting content in an accessible way

As such, PDFs often breach our accessibility guidelines.

It's not just us saying this: Gov.uk has moved away from PDFs for the same reason.


Documents and best-practice

Accessibility is not the only reason to re-consider using PDFs and other document downloads at Warwick. Even when they have been coded specially by designers to be more accessible, the following problems still exist.


Documents are not designed for screens

PDFs and documents are often written and designed for print. This is a problem because people read and access content differently on screens.

Documents also do not change size to fit browser windows. They are particularly difficult to use on mobiles. And they usually take up more file size, which is especially difficult when people are using mobile data.

Documents are not ideal for search engines or users

The content in documents can be harder for search engines to read online (especially when they are flat designs). It can also be harder to remove content which has been indexed from search results.

Documents are harder to create and update

It takes more effort and money overall to create a full print design brochure than a webpage. It can be even more difficult to keep them up to date. PDFs are especially hard to update or reuse if the original file is lost.

Once someone has downloaded your first file, they might not see your second or third iteration. You cannot remove or replace their file, and you rely on them redownloading it.


Our recommendation

Because documents and PDFs often break accessibility and best-practice guidelines, they should not be used on our digital platforms except in certain circumstances.

We have used documents online for a long time, so it is understandable to feel a little daunted by the idea of not using them. However, it is much better and easier for our users, and provides a much more inclusive experience, to present the information in a webpage format.

We know that this is a big change. We are still working to discover all the possible exceptions to this across the institution and to enable all who use our digital platforms to have access to our materials.

We also understand this change can’t happen all at once and that it won’t be practicable in all cases, but it is an important change the university needs to make.

We are here to support you, for example, this website can help you to:

These guides will help you to create content that people can read easily online and create content that does well in Google

Meanwhile, our IDG and Digital Teams will be working hard to support you become an inclusive content provider.

Contact us to ask any questions.


What are the exceptions?


Internal documents

We may need to share files on Teams or by email with colleagues as part of our daily work. In this case, please be considerate of colleagues who might have accessibility needs.

See how to make Microsoft documents accessible. Remember, if these documents need to go online, they need to be turned into HTML webpages instead.

Creating content to go online

There are some exceptions where your content will suit being uploaded online. This would include campus maps, brochures and posters when these need to be downloaded and printed.

See our guides and in particular how to create accessible Adobe PDF documents

Receiving content like e-books

Some content (like some Library e-journals and digital books) might arrive with you in a PDF format for which the copyright is not owned by Warwick.

In this case, if someone asks for it you should consider an alternate accessible format, eg Braille, Word, etc.

Archived content

We do not have to update PDFs or other documents published before 23 September 2018 when they are archive materials (not actively used).