All federal web media must comply with section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act,* making content accessible to individuals with disabilities to the extent that this can be reasonably done. This is best achieved during the design stage, but content can be retrofitted.
The prime source for section 508 compliance is Section508.gov. This federal website provides guidance along with a copy of the law itself. The law applies to both technology and products— for example, both “software applications and operating systems” and “video and multimedia products” should be usable by people with disabilities. The law does not apply to print media, but it does cover online documents.
What if you never produce content for federal web media? The 508 guidance is good to follow anyway. Worth reading is Robert Kingett’s 2009 blog post “PDF can be a nightmare for me and others with disabilities … “The sad truth is that many e-books are not very useful for the visually impaired,” he wrote. “I have come across numerous instances where I can’t even read a book, let alone navigate it. And here I’m supposed to study it for class!” He came across the same problems in both textbooks and commercial books. His story is a reminder that 508 compliance isn’t just about rules, it’s about people.
My mantra is “care about the reader.” Even if you edit primarily for print media, the work may be published online too, and it will be more useful to more people if you make the content 508 compliant.
If you’re editing documents that will be converted to Portable Document Format (PDF), that is the time to pay attention to document content that will affect 508 compliance. A 508-compliant PDF must have a tagged heading structure (using, for example, Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.), not have text in boxes, and use colors with adequate contrast (among other requirements). These things, if noncompliant, can be remedied in Acrobat Pro, but it’s much easier to get them right while working in Microsoft Word. The Department of Health and Human Services has a good PDF 508 compliance checklist, and you can keep the requirements in mind long before a document is converted to a PDF.
Making colors compliant is particularly hard once you have made a document into a PDF. The webAIM color contrast checker will tell you whether type has adequate contrast with the background, and you can use it to check colors in graphics too.
Once you’ve gotten a document into the PDF stage, you can use the accessibility wizard in recent versions of Acrobat Pro to check the tags, heading structure, tables, and almost everything else except the colors.
Achieving 508 compliance does take extra work, but if you do keep it in mind from the beginning, it isn’t that hard or time consuming.
* Not the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is sometimes wrongly cited.