External Document Used in Place of Active Web Application

Short Description

A link leads to a static document, often a PDF, when an active web application would have more functionality

Long Description

  • Sometimes a developer will link to a static document like a PDF or a JPG as a quick way to make information available.
  • Using these static document types loses some functionality and intractability compared to an active web application. The more flexible a document is, the more ways it can be interpreted, which is useful both to users with screen readers and screen magnifiers.
  • What is potentially lost depends on the document type.
  • A PDF has differing levels of accessibility depending on what kind of PDF it is, and how the document is formatted. If it is an image based PDF, there is no information for a screen reader to communicate to the user, other than that it is an image. If the document is a form, it is important to ensure that it is properly marked up as a form with form fields, and does not just use underscores to indicate where someone should hand write answers. Furthermore, when a form is a PDF, it is no longer possible to provide interactive help or feedback on errors. Information in the document should be organized and marked up with headings and lists to assist in navigating. Even with all the proper markup and formatting, it requires more advanced knowledge of screen reader use to navigate a PDF, so probably more screen reader users will know how to complete these tasks in a web application than in a PDF.
  • A JPG is just an image, and a screen reader cannot interpret the content of the image. If the image were in the web application, it could either have proper alt text so a screen reader user could deduce that information, or it could have a null alt tag because it was just aesthetic and the screen reader would skip over it. Text Content should not appear in image form.
  • A Word document is not accessible on all technology. In addition, information should have the same markup as it would in html, so it makes sense to include it in the web application.
  • An Excel document is also not accessible on all technologies. In some cases, if the intention is to provide data to interact with, or if there is a large amount of data, a static document a user downloads makes more sense. However, if there is an amount that can be reasonably displayed in the web application, proper table markup makes it more accessible to more people, and users can copy and paste it into whatever software they choose.

Example of Issue



Impacted Assistive Technology

Screen Reader
Screen Magnifier

Impacted Type of Device



  • Only use a static external document when there is a specific reason for doing so.
  • When using an external document type, do research to find out what is necessary to make that document type fully accessible.
  • For more information read the article Accessible Word and PDF documents on the AUL site.