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Digital Documents

So you have a digital document. Can you make it accessible?

Digital documents are non-HTML files that can be viewed and downloaded on the web. This includes PDFs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, Powerpoint slideshows and more. They are a kind of digital content.

All digital content on ESF's website is required to meet federal, state and SUNY guidelines for accessibility. In short, if it isn't accessible, we can't post it until it's made accessible.

Every digital document is different, depending on its format, how big it is, how much work it will take to remediate it for accessibility, and the exact purpose it will serve. But here are some questions to ask and some options.

Remember that the creator/'owner' of the document is responsible for ensuring that it's accessible. But staff in the Office of Communications & Marketing (website and communications materials) or Open Academy (academic and instructional materials) are available to help you assess your situation and provide guidance on the process. We have tutorials and training available on digital document accessibility. You can also contact or Brandon Murphy in Open Academy to get connected with training, and get support and troubleshooting for document remediation.

Question 1: Does this content truly need to be on the web?

A good first question to ask is always, “Is this really worth spending time on in the first place?” How much benefit will viewers really get from it? does the information serve the needs or mission of the college’s website? If the content in the document isn’t required for regulatory purposes and doesn’t serve a necessary or important informational purpose, then the easiest solution is often to simply not put it up in the first place.

Some content should definitely not be on the website. The ESF website is promotional in nature and should not be used to hold content that is primarily historical or research-oriented in purpose (records of past meetings, past conference proceedings, old reports or papers, data troves). With time, this kind of content becomes difficult to keep organized and maintained. Content meant to be stored for historical purposes is better suited to be placed in the library’s digital archives. Content meant to be used for instructional purposes should be stored in Blackboard.

Ephemeral documents—for example, a flyer for an event—should also not be put on the website. This content falls out of date quickly. The website should be largely considered a static medium, designed to hold content that will remain relevant for long periods.

If Yes: This content is required/necessary/ important for visitors, then…

Question 2: Is the document meant to be used just like a webpage?

I.e. Is the main purpose for it to be viewed and read on a browser? Do you consider it a low priority for users to be able to download, print or edit the information?

If Yes: Build a webpage with the content on it, instead of using a digital document. ESF webpages in the OUCampus content management system are built with accessible, mobile-friendly templates. Webpages are comparatively easy to amend for accessibility compared to documents, and furthermore the content can be maintained more easily than a document.

If No: Turning this content into a webpage will not serve its intended use case, then…

Question 3: Is the document currently accessible?

It’s time to run an accessibility check! Some programs have built-in accessibility checkers you can use to see whether the document is accessible or not, and what needs to be fixed. For PDFs, you will need access to a licensed copy of Adobe Acrobat Pro in order to check for accessibility and remediate the document. You can find information on checking accessibility for various kinds of digital documents at

If Yes: The document is accessible in its current form: Go ahead and post it.

If No: This document needs work to be made accessible, then…

Question 4: Is some other organization or agency hosting a copy of this document that you could link to, instead of recreating all the work yourself?

Particularly in the case of documents that are required for regulatory purposes, it’s often the case that the file was originally created by some other organization, perhaps even a state or federal agency, and that they have a publicly available copy of the document on their website. In this case, we may be able to simply link to their copy.

If No: This document does not originate with some other organization with a copy we can link to, then...

Question 5: Could the document be converted into a format that can more easily be made accessible?

Some document formats are easier to make accessible than others. HTML is the easiest to work with when it comes to meeting accessibility requirements. PDF documents are often particularly time-consuming to make accessible, and furthermore the software to do so requires a paid license. Microsoft Office documents typically fall somewhere in between, and of course there are many more formats than these, including Google Docs and more.

There are some document types we are simply unable to remediate sufficiently to post them on the website. We can no longer host fillable PDF forms on the website, so these must be converted to another format such as a web-based form.

The decision of what—if any—format to convert the file to can be a complex one. It depends on the exact purpose of the document and the needs of its creators and/or users. A few considerations may include:

  • Some kinds of data--such as financial or medical data--may have special requirements in terms of how it may be received and transmitted. The web-based forms offered by the OUCampus may not be sufficiently secure to transmit credit card numbers, for example, or they may not be able to collect certain kinds of data.
  • Who needs to be able to access the document? How widely used is the alternative format among that group?
  • Is it important that the content of the document be unalterable? Is it important it be alterable? Different file formats offer different capabilities.

If No: The document cannot be converted into a format that can more easily be made accessible while still adequately maintaining its purpose, then…

Question 6: Can the document be made accessible without taking a prohibitive amount of work?

Some documents—even in the same format—are easier to remediate than others. Short documents are easier than longer ones. Simple documents are easier to remediate than documents with complex formatting or layout such as columns or tables. Documents that are simple black text on white background are easier to remediate than documents with more colors or images.

But long or complex documents—such as issues of a publication, or a long report—can be very difficulty to remediate, even for someone with expertise. And it is possible to encounter issues whose repair might result in the document becoming useless for its intended purpose, or even issues where changes simply can’t be made.

If you consult with accessibility subject experts on campus and determine together that the document is going to be prohibitive or perhaps even impossible to remediate, but it needs to be available on the ESF website, then it may be posted with a disclaimer provided by the college’s counsel.