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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 programme 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 audits, 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 PDFs

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

Published 7 April, 2008 by Chris Rourke

Chris Rourke is Managing Director of User Vision and a contributor to Econsultancy.

23 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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James

I think part of the problem for companies such as American Express is that the PDF statements are generated as a by-product of the printing process - so essentially an image of the statement is rendered, a copy is sent to a printer, and it is saved as a PDF format. There is no information in there for a screenreader to interpret as it is essentially a bitmap image.

This is not going to go away overnight, and not without costing millions of pounds as companies have to re-engineer their back-end processes.

Adobe have done a lot to promote accessible PDF, but in reality, legacy processes are the weakest link.

over 8 years ago

Chris Rourke

Chris Rourke, Managing Director at User VisionSmall Business Multi-user

Thats a very good point and I have seen that in action with some banks, not only with inaccessible PDF s but other 3rd party modules (e.g. quote calculators, cirrency converters etc). Frustratingly the response from the technical or business team in the bank is that it is out of their control because it is a 3rd party application. One of the intentions of the PAS 78 for site commisioners / managers is to encourage a more 'top down' approach in vetting suppliers in accessibility (among other things). I agree there is a lot of inertia in the system to be worked out.

over 8 years ago

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lawrence shaw, Marketing at Sitemorse Ltd

In our last survey of Banking websites, we found that just 17% of PDF's met accessibility requirements;

Our detailed findings are available at
http://survey-beta.sitemorse.com/survey/report.html?rt=358&key=46c9273b

UK Central Gov don't fair well either, with 19.5% of PDF's failing, across the FTSE100 some 18.8% fail.

Full Survey access, UK Gov websites [http://survey-beta.sitemorse.com/survey/report.html?rt=359&key=055202af]

FTSE100 [http://survey-beta.sitemorse.com/survey/report.html?rt=361&key=0c6a3d29]

All in all, a long way to go (as per Jame's comment)

over 8 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

lawrence shaw, Marketing at Sitemorse Ltd

In our last survey of Banking websites, we found that just 17% of PDF's met accessibility requirements;

Our detailed findings are available at
http://survey-beta.sitemorse.com/survey/report.html?rt=358&key=46c9273b

UK Central Gov don't fair well either, with 19.5% of PDF's failing, across the FTSE100 some 18.8% fail.

Full Survey access;
UK Gov websites - http://survey-beta.sitemorse.com/survey/report.html?rt=359&key=055202af

FTSE100- http://survey-beta.sitemorse.com/survey/report.html?rt=361&key=0c6a3d29

All in all, a long way to go (as per Jame's comment)

over 8 years ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

html to pdf converter

I have been reading your blog last couple of weeks and enjoy every bit. Thanks.

almost 7 years ago

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