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Previously, we looked at the path to document accessibility and the importance of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) industry standard. Now, let’s look at the steps you will need to consider when developing a strategy for producing accessible documents.

Start by Identifying Document Types

A helpful starting point is to divide your organization's portfolio of documents into two distinct types:
  • Ad hoc documents, such as letters, memos, content on websites, and other documents that are individually created and typically change regularly
  • Transactional documents, which are produced using enterprise document composition software
These two categories of documents may warrant very different treatments when it comes to making them accessible.

One way to make an ad hoc document accessible is to manually set up the tags, reading order, and other accessibility components when the document is originally created in the source composition software, such as Word or InDesign. In this way, the documents will be accessible from the outset. However, drawbacks to this approach include the employee training required and the additional time and expertise needed to create the documents. If there are many different users in the organization creating these documents, the cost, in terms of training, document creation time, and quality assurance, can be significant. Additionally, if new versions of the ad hoc documents are created, tagging will need to be performed again. This may not be an option for some composition software users, as not all packages support accessibility tagging. Another option is to send ad hoc documents to a third-party provider, which has its own cost and time implications.

For transactional documents, making documents accessible during the original composition process presents even greater challenges. The first of those is that few customer communications management (CCM) composition software vendors have incorporated accessibility features into their solutions. Moreover, if those features are available, the organization will face the same training, document development, and quality assurance costs as discussed when taking a composition approach with ad hoc documents. Of course, another option is to outsource, but the turnaround time for this approach can be days or weeks, which is typically not acceptable for transactional documents.

Consider a Post-Composition Approach for Transactional Documents

For these reasons, a post-composition approach to accessibility for transactional documents makes the most sense. This is the point when the potential for automation comes into play. There are two different approaches to automating the process.

The first is a template solution in which the various parts of the document template are tagged for the content that will be contained in that template area. A template approach can work for simple documents, such as invoices, which have a standard format. However, this approach limits the flexibility that is possible in the documents produced, because the kind of data that can be placed in each part of the template has been predefined. Today, organizations produce more complex documents, using variable data and multiple composition tools for different portions of a statement. In a complex document, each statement may be different, containing marketing messages, images, and other elements that are personalized and unique. This makes using a predefined template unworkable.

The other way to automate transactional documents is with a rule-based approach, which employs a solution that makes it possible to set up rules that identify the different elements in a document, such as the font used for headings, and applies the appropriate tag based on the rules. For complex transactional documents, a rule-based approach tends to work far better than a template one because specific content will be recognized and tagged appropriately—no matter where it is located on the document or what composition system was used to create it.

Automate to Save Time and Money

Automating the document accessibility process will enable an organization to make documents accessible in seconds instead of taking days or weeks if done manually or through a third-party provider. Another significant advantage of automation is that an organization can make a document accessible on the fly when requested by a customer or user, rather than having to store all documents in an accessible format. Having this capability can significantly reduce document archiving costs, which, in some instances, can be more than 30 times higher if stored in accessible formats.

Additionally, an automated approach can be easily modified to support evolving industry standards. As the WCAG standard changes, templates or rules can be updated to support the new version. On the other hand, if documents were created or stored using older guidelines, they may all have to be updated to support the new standard, which can be cost-prohibitive.

A best practice approach to implementing accessibility starts with an assessment of the types of documents produced by your organization. Ad hoc documents and high-volume transactional documents present different issues and may warrant different accessibility strategies. Ultimately, your organization may determine that a mix of manual, template, and rule-based workflows provide the most practical and cost-effective means to ensure that customers, employees, and others engaging with your organization can obtain accessible documents when they need them.

Ernie Crawford is the President/CEO and founder of Crawford Technologies. Ernie has more than 30 years of senior marketing and management experience in the high-volume electronic printing market.