Striving to remove barriers that prevent us from building Vibrant, Diverse, Inclusive, Accessible Communities!



Exposing the Design Failures of Using Print with Online PDFs, Which Create Discriminatory Barriers to Accessibility and Inclusive Design

By Mike Thompson, 26 April, 2024

As we strive to remove barriers that prevent us from building Vibrant, Diverse, Inclusive, Accessible Communities, it is imperative for our Institutions and their subsidiaries to center their efforts on Inclusive Design when disseminating content and information. Otherwise, the published content would only be available for an exclusive, elite subgroup of the community.  Excluding marginalized community members because of discriminatory and unusable publication design should never be tolerated!

If any discrimination is at all to be tolerated”, Shoghi Effendi has stated when discussing the corrosive effects of prejudice, “it should be a discrimination not against, but rather in favour of the minority, be it racial or otherwise.” - Universal House of Justice letter, 27 December, 2017

Making Decisions on Publication Formats

Print materials prove to be an inadequate choice due to their static nature and lack of adaptability, particularly for people with disabilities as well as older people who have problems reading small print. The absence of alternative text descriptions prevents Blind People and others using access technologies like screen readers, magnification, or the ability to adjust font sizes, colors, and styles from accessing what is published. Content providers must prioritize removing these barriers to ensure equal access to the information. Otherwise, a large number of readers will be excluded with print as a media choice.

It's crucial to note that the online version should not simply be a replica of the print version but instead should follow best practices for online publishing.

The management of dual or multiple content formats, combining print and online content, can present significant problems in ensuring equal allocation of resources and production quality across all aspects. It's crucial to note that the online version should not simply be a replica of the print version but instead should follow best practices for online publishing.

In today's digital landscape, the decision on which publication formats to use, both online and offline, demands a shift in design and planning towards inclusive design principles. No longer can we rely on historical norms or outdated thinking when determining the most effective format for disseminating information. Instead, the focus must be on the content itself, ensuring it remains accessible and inclusive. While traditional methods may prioritize control over presentation and layout, the principles of accessibility and inclusive design emphasize the paramount importance of user control over layout and presentation components. Content creators must recognize that it's not the layout that matters most, but rather the ability for users to adjust font size, style, colors, backgrounds, number of columns, and a multitude of other layout and presentation components for usability and accessibility. Failure to adhere to these principles will inevitably exclude a significant portion of the population from accessing the most important thing, which is the content and information.

Key questions to address in the decision-making process:

  • Have we considered the diversity of the people in the community who will be reading the information we publish and their various circumstances?
  • Do we publish an Accessibility Statement with our online information that clearly demonstrates our commitment to Accessibility and Inclusion?
  • Is there an effective and accessible process for people facing barriers to accessing our information in its current format to provide feedback regarding Accessibility Problems that will be taken seriously and acted upon promptly?
  • Did we involve the people who face these barriers in our decision-making process for publication methodology?
  • Do we follow Best Practices for Accessibility and Inclusive design, including the latest International Accessibility Standards? How is this verified?
  • Are the people facing these barriers included in the verification process?

These key questions ensure that our publishing practices are inclusive and accessible for marginalized people in the community. They consider diverse circumstances, involve marginalized people in decision-making, uphold Accessibility and Inclusion principles, provide effective channels for feedback on accessibility problems, adhere to Best Practices and International Standards for Accessibility, and include those facing barriers in verification processes. This approach promotes an equitable experience for marginalized people who would otherwise face discrimination.

Man with cerebral palsy using a headset and touchscreen computer
An Asian American blind young woman smiles while she uses a refreshable Braille display while working on the computer and her non-Blind friend looks at the screen
Older woman using smartphone to access information online while sitting on an armchair at home
Close-up of a blind man's hands using a refreshable Braille display next to his computer keyboard

Caption: A few examples of marginalized community members benefiting from the key action items in the decision-making process listed above.

Reimagining Publication Strategies

For organizations with established publishing departments accustomed to traditional print magazine formats, it's essential to embrace a modern approach to publication and information distribution. This means prioritizing inclusivity and accessibility over personal preferences of the content providers, and what is simply convenient for them or happens to work with their existing software. Worse yet, simply because that’s how it’s always been done!

Instead, the focus should be on ensuring that content is accessible and inclusive, thereby removing barriers to building a vibrant, inclusive community. Additionally, content providers must undergo appropriate training and possess a thorough understanding of international accessibility standards to ensure that their materials meet the requirements of a large diverse group of marginalized users effectively. Accessibility and Inclusion cannot be an afterthought but must be meticulously integrated at every stage, from conception to distribution, to truly create content that is accessible.

Magazine Publishing in the Digital Age

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." -Abraham Maslow

Despite the historical and ongoing decline of print magazine and newspaper usage, the industry has undergone significant modifications to adapt to the digital age.  In the evolving landscape of magazine publishing, the move towards digital platforms reflects a broader commitment to accessibility and inclusive design. Accessibility encompasses not only physical access but also the ability for diverse audiences to engage with content in ways that suit their individual preferences. Digital formats inherently offer significant advantages in this regard, allowing users to access information on their own terms—whether it's through screen readers for people who are Blind and Low Vision, adjustable font sizes colors and styles for readability, or language translation tools for non-native speakers.

Publishing content should be about what works most inclusively and accessibly by design for all users, not just an elite, exclusive majority. Inclusive design goes beyond accessibility to ensure that content is designed from the outset to be usable by as many people as possible, without the need for special adaptations. By defaulting to digital distribution, publishers can design and create information to be universally accessible, reaching a broader audience that spans geographical, economic, and logistical barriers. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the health risks associated with shared print materials in public spaces like waiting rooms, highlighting the importance of digital access in addressing these problems and aligning with trends towards personalized, on-demand content consumption instead of print magazines.

Prioritizing digital platforms and adopting inclusive design principles not only enhances access but also empowers readers to engage with content in ways that suit their preferences and circumstances. This shift represents a pivotal step towards an equitable and inclusive information ecosystem, where everyone can participate fully in the cultural and educational exchange facilitated by media and publishing.

Opt-In or Opt-Out for print?

It's telling when an organization automatically sends out free print magazine publications, essentially making it necessary for the community to opt out rather than opt in for print. What if the default opt-in for receiving free print magazines was changed to default opt-out, and people were given the opportunity to opt-in only if they preferred the printed version? What would the print circulation numbers look like then? Telling is the key word here. Why force people to consume your information in a way that is not only generally unpreferred but also not accessible or inclusive?

Impact on Magazine Companies

Many magazine publishers have been forced to change their strategy and increasingly focus on producing quality, Accessible online content, resulting in a highly competitive sector which has harmed many magazine companies. As of 2020, the total number of US magazine companies was 4,519, reflecting a decline of 30.33% since 2012. The industry continues to face challenges as global print magazine and newspaper revenues are expected to drop by 13.05% from 2023 to 2027.

Open Generic Print Magazine with two tall stacks of used unwanted magazines

Magazine Revenue Statistics

Magazine publishers have had to diversify their revenue streams as a result of declining print sales. Total estimated revenue for US magazine companies was $26.01 billion as of 2021, with subscriptions and sales making up 37.41% of revenue. However, global digital magazine and newspaper revenues are expected to grow 11.37% by 2027, reflecting the industry's shift towards digital platforms.

Magazine Employee Statistics

The number of magazine employees has decreased significantly, likely due to a reduction in the demand for physical magazines. In the US, the total number of magazine employees was 73,781 as of 2020. Despite this decline, salaries for employees have increased on average each year, indicating that professionals within the magazine industry can be well compensated for their efforts, especially for those who keep up with modern, accessible, and inclusive publishing methods.

Integration of Accessibility

Accessibility should seamlessly integrate into the fabric of content creation and distribution processes, informing decisions from the initial planning stages to the final publication. This means structuring content for easy navigation by all users, including those with disabilities who rely on assistive technologies, as well as older people who may struggle with small print. Providing alternative text for images, Captions and Audio Descriptions for videos, and descriptive headings for navigation are all essential.

The use of montage images with simple ALT Text like "A group of images about X" is not inclusive. Non-blind audiences have the ability to obtain information and details about each of the images in the group, while this approach leaves blind users unable to access information about the content of each individual image equitably.  Ultimately this is not an actual description of each image but an avoidance of providing equal access to published content.

Recognition of an Evolving Landscape

Acknowledging the evolving landscape of online content consumption is crucial. A significant number of people no longer rely on or even own desktop computers; increasingly, they access digital information through smartphones and mobil devices. However, PDF documents, particularly those with multiple columns, fail to accommodate this shift in usage patterns because the PDF format doe's not lend itself to responsive layout for smaller screen sizes or user's preferred or required method of obtaining information. 

In crafting online content with inclusivity at the forefront, it's essential to prioritize decisions that remove barriers and provide accessibility, rather than solely considering convenience and preferences for content creators. This means prioritizing accessibility over convenience, consulting with users, particularly those with disabilities, adhering to accessibility standards like WCAG, emphasizing user experience, and committing to continual consultation and improvement. By actively involving people with disabilities in the decision-making process and adhering to accessibility standards, content creators can ensure that their information is accessible, intuitive, and engaging for all users, fostering inclusivity and reaching a wider, less exclusive audience.

Consultation with People with Disabilities

In the pursuit of inclusive design and accessibility, consulting with people with disabilities becomes imperative to identify and address the problems they encounter. Their insights provide invaluable guidance in recognizing and removing barriers that prevent access to digital content. By actively involving people with disabilities in the content creation process, content creators can gain a deeper understanding of the problems they face and work collaboratively to develop effective solutions. 

Advocacy groups, comprising people who have previously reported accessibility problems, serve as essential partners in this endeavor. Their advocacy efforts shed light on existing problems, prompting necessary changes and improvements in digital content creation. Consulting with these groups allows content creators to proactively address accessibility problems and ensure that their materials are genuinely inclusive and accessible. By prioritizing the removal of problems identified through consultation, content creators can not only enhance the accessibility of digital content but also contribute to building vibrant communities and fostering a culture of inclusion and empowerment for people with disabilities and other marginalized users.

Claiming that a publication is accessible without consulting People with Disabilities is misleading and ethically questionable. Without their input, publishers risk overlooking barriers that exist within their content, such as problems with navigation, screen reader compatibility, and color contrast. 

Priority on Mobile Accessibility

Recognizing the widespread adoption of smartphones and mobil devices underscores the need to prioritize mobile accessibility. With many people no longer owning desktop computers, smartphones and mobil devices have become the primary device for accessing digital content. Optimizing content for mobile viewing enables creators to reach a broader audience across various devices and economic backgrounds, ensuring that information is accessible to everyone, regardless of their choice of device.

Older man wearing glasses uses his mobile phone to look up information
An older couple sits in their kitchen, the man using a wheelchair reads information on his smart phone while his wife looks on
People living on the street using mobile phones to access information
Homeless Filipino woman cuddling sleeping little son while accessing information on a mobile phone

Caption: Examples of community members from diverse economic backgrounds, Ages, Gender, Disability, and Race relying solely on mobile devices to access your publications.

Benefits of Inclusive Approach

An inclusive approach to content creation benefits everyone, including older people who can no longer read small print as well as people with disabilities. Clear writing, well-structured layouts, and intuitive, comprehensive navigation enhance the user experience. Prioritizing accessibility ensures that content resonates with diverse communities and reaches the widest possible audience.

Problems with PDF Documents

Relying solely on a combination of print with online PDF versions perpetuates the misconception that accessibility can be an afterthought. This approach undermines the principles of inclusive design and excludes people with disabilities and other marginalized users from accessing vital information. While print materials lack necessary accessibility features, online PDF versions does not fully meet international accessibility standards, preventing accessibility and limiting the reach of important content.

Problems with the PDF Format

The PDF format, since its inception, has been designed to prioritize the needs and preferences of content creators, granting them extensive control over the layout, presentation, and security of digital documents. However, this focus on empowering content creators creates barriers for people with disabilities and other marginalized users.

One of the primary reasons PDFs can be a problem for people with disabilities is the lack of flexibility in customization for end-users. While content creators have the ability to meticulously design documents, selecting font sizes and styles, colors, backgrounds, and layout configurations, people with disabilities find this forced format to be unusable. For example, people who are Blind or have Low Vision may be unable to change font sizes , styles or colors to improve readability, while those with intellectual disabilities may find complex layouts overwhelming or difficult to navigate.

Additionally, the reliance on visual elements within PDF documents can pose significant problems for people who rely on assistive technologies such as screen readers. PDFs often contain images of text rather than actual text, making it a problem for screen readers to interpret and convey the content accurately. Moreover, the lack of proper tagging and structure within PDFs will prevent accessibility, as assistive technologies may struggle to navigate the document in a logical and understandable manner.

Avoid PDF for Online Content

The fixed nature of PDF documents can limit accessibility for people who require the ability to change the presentation parameters. Unlike web pages, which can adapt dynamically to accommodate different screen sizes and assistive technologies, PDFs are typically static and may not easily convert to alternative formats without significant effort, making online PDF presentations a poor choice.

Overall, while the PDF format offers many benefits for content creators in terms of design control and document security, its characteristics often create problems for people with disabilities and other marginalized users. As a result, ensuring the accessibility of online documents requires careful consideration of inclusive design principles and adherence to accessibility standards such as WCAG as opposed to the extremely limited PDF/UA to remove barriers and make digital content universally inclusive and accessible.

Accessibility Problems in PDF Documents

PDF documents present significant accessibility problems, particularly regarding navigation for larger documents and user control over font styles, colors, columns, and backgrounds. Navigating lengthy PDFs poses problems for people who are Blind or have Low Vision, while the inability to adjust font sizes, styles, colors, or background contrasts affects readability. Additionally, the lack of proper structural markup and alternative text for images makes PDFs inaccessible to screen readers.

Alternative Approaches

Using PDFs for on-screen reading should be avoided as they are optimized for print, leading to usability problems such as limited navigation and slow download times. Despite their prevalence, misconceptions about their ease of use persist, contributing to their continued use over web pages. To address this, organizations should consider alternative formats and follow guidelines when using PDFs, ensuring they are accessible and not being misused for online content. Offering multiple formats beyond PDF, such as interactive web pages or mobile-friendly versions, supports greater accessibility and usability for all users, aligning with the principles of inclusive design and prioritizing what users prefer and require.


To build truly inclusive communities, content creators must prioritize removing barriers at every stage of content creation and distribution. Consulting with people with disabilities, as well as considering factors such as race, age, gender, culture, disability, and economic status, is imperative to ensure that problems are addressed comprehensively. Adopting a holistic approach to accessibility ensures that online spaces are accessible and equitable for all users, regardless of disability or demographic backgrounds. By embracing inclusivity and prioritizing accessibility, we can create digital environments that foster diversity, promote equality, and empower all people to access and engage with information effectively.


Striving to remove barriers that prevent us from building a Diverse, Vibrant, Inclusive, Accessible Community!

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