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075: Accessible Publishing with Kelly Dermody and Adam Chaboryk

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Throughout this series, you’ve heard guests say that PDFs pose a challenge to barrier-free document access. This is one of the greatest challenges our guests today see in their line of work, too. Before we sit down for a conversation about accessible publishing with experts, Kelly Dermody and Adam Chaboryk, let’s take a closer look at how and why accessible PDFs are a challenge, as well as what we can actively do to help create documents with fewer barriers.

One of the reasons that PDFs are a challenge is due to the fact that accessibility starts at the beginning of the document design process, however the layout artist or person formatting the long document doesn’t always build this in. (I am just as guilty as anyone else for not doing this.)

To create accessible PDFs, first you must build an InDesign document that maps paragraph styles to export tags. You should also anchor images within the content flow, assign alt-text to images, include internal document navigation through bookmarks and/or a table of contents and/or hyperlinks, define the content order, and add required metadata.

Phew, no wonder barrier-free PDFs are a challenging...

...but it’s also important, so let’s figure some of this out. By building these tasks into our long document design workflow we are doing the work necessary now that our future selves (and others using the PDF who require barrier-free access) will thank us for later. All of this information comes from Adobe directly.

Building Accessibility Into InDesign Files

1. Paragraph styles

Do you remember that time that your lab instructor showed you how and why to use paragraph styles consistently throughout your document? There are many, many excellent reasons to take the time to set up an apply paragraph styles and here is another one: consistently using paragraph styles and basing your styles on a hierarchical structure (for example headings, subheadings etc.), you are building in the necessary hierarchy into the document that will make it more accessible as a PDF.

2. Establishing tag relationships

Inside of the Paragraph Style Options dialogue box there is a section where you can assign each style to an export tag that builds a relationship between the style you have used and PDF tags when it’s exported as a PDF. For example these tags include paragraph (P), heading levels 1-6 (H1-H6) or Artifact. This saves lots of time later and just helps InDesign communicate necessary tagging information when it becomes a PDF file.

3. Anchoring images

When there are images in a long document, sighted users are able to see the image, read the text and make the connection between the two. Alternatively, screen readers and assistive technologies require images to be placed as close as possible to the text that they’re related to (it reads linearly). InDesign makes it easy by dragging and dropping object anchoring in the right place, in a way that doesn’t affect the print layout.

4. Add alt-text

You’ve heard this once, twice, probably six times by now but let’s remember to add alt-text to images. You can add alt-text within the Object Export Options in InDesign.

5. Include internal document navigation

Remember that time your lab instructor showed you how to create an automated table of contents? OK, I promise to stop asking these questions but it is really important to incorporate cross references and hyperlinks and bookmarks that can act as navigation within a document itself. So build that table of contents that can help readers navigate the document using these internal links.

6. Content order

The Articles panel in InDesign is really powerful for establishing a reading order. While excellent typographic practice, including balanced marking and spacing, will make a document more readable for sighted users, tagging content in InDesign makes a document more readable for visually impaired users who rely on assistive technologies. Dragging and dropping frames and objects into the Articles panel allows you to then rearrange them in the desired reading order without affecting the page layout.

7. Metadata

An interesting titbit of information is that a PDF file requires a document title and description of its contents not only for accessibility, but also for search engine optimization. By adding this information to the InDesign File Information dialogue box, it automatically transfers to the PDF as metadata.

8. Export your accessible PDF

When you are finished with your InDesign document and you are ready to export it as a PDF, use settings that optimize accessibility whether that is through print or interactive PDFs. All of the information that you have so diligently built into the file including tagging, organizing and establishing hierarchy translates into a more accessible PDF.

This isn’t the end of the road for a perfectly accessible, barrier-free PDF but it’s going to get you almost all the way there. By understanding how to build this fundamental accessible functionality into an end design document you are miles ahead of most page layout artists when it comes to usable, functional PDFs for persons of all abilities.


Today’s guests are Kelly Dermody (an e-Learning and Accessibility Services Librarian) and Adam Chaboryk (a digital accessibility consultant and front-end web developer). Both of our guests will introduce themselves and walk us through the current status of accessible publishing, including how technology has evolved in 15 years, as well as barriers that still exist and what the library is doing to make accessible documents more accessible. Finally, Kelly and Adam describe the ways in which technologies (including AI) will not remove all barriers to accessibility and why humans will remain at the forefront of inclusion efforts for the foreseeable future.

Key Themes Discussed:

  • There is a greater willingness on behalf of the publishers to share PDF files of textbooks

  • The way in which technology has evolved in the last 15+ years (ex: faster scanning technology, OCR, etc.)

  • Barriers that still exist for students in the form of library databases being inaccessible to screen readers

  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

  • The (surprising!) inaccessibility of eBooks

  • Accessibility is playing catch-up with the speed and evolution of technology (accessibility is often an after-thought)

  • The power of the Pressbooks platform

  • What Kelly would like to see in the future from publishers and Adam describes what’s missing in the tools

  • An exciting new accessibility “self-service” technology launching soon

  • While AI can assist with helping to remove barriers, it’s not 100% effective because accessibility is about the human experience and the variation of human experiences; the continued need for human intervention in accessible publishing solutions

  • The importance of integrating accessibility into your company’s culture, getting everyone involved in thinking about it from the beginning and involving persons with disabilities in the conversations

Links Discussed In Today's Episode:

Library Accessibility Services:

The Chang School’s Accessibility Resources:

Podcast episode art that contains the text Episode 75 Accessible Publishing with Kelly Dermody and Adam Chaboryk placed on a background image of an ocean, reinforcing this accessibility change maker series' guests 'making waves' in their industries.

About Our Guests:

Kelly Dermody from the shoulders up wearing a dark coloured shirt, glasses and she is smiling.

Kelly Dermody is the e-Learning and Accessibility Services Librarian at Ryerson University Library. Kelly has been developing the library's accessibility services since 2005, including the implementation of the library’s accessible formats and captioning services. She has been the e-Learning Librarian since 2012. She is also the subject liaison librarian for Psychology, Philosophy and Music.

Adam Chaboryk from the shoulders up with sun shining on his face and he is smiling.

Adam Chaboryk is a digital accessibility consultant and front-end web developer with a passion for building inclusive experiences. He is currently employed as an IT Accessibility Specialist at Ryerson University. Adam enables the Ryerson community with the resources and guidance to create a more inclusive digital environment for all learners, faculty, staff and the general public. Adam also led the development of Sa11y, an open source accessibility checker designed for content authors. Sa11y is featured on the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List, and is currently used by several hundred content authors across various organizations.

Music (public domain via Free Music Archive): Lobo Loco - Deep Friendship

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

Episode Artwork: Canva (remixed by Diana Varma)



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