A New Challenge for Investment Managers? ADA Compliant PDFs, Websites

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By Emilie Totten

Section 508 Compliant PDF Documents
I was in a client meeting a few weeks ago when I first heard the phrase, “ADA compliant documents”.  One of our major asset management clients announced that they were beginning to make plans to update their literature strategies to ensure their electronic documents are accessible to people with disabilities, according to Section 508 standards. As their document automation vendor, we jumped at the task to understand if and how this regulation may affect our business and our clients. 

Our research turned up a lot of outdated information and sparked more questions than answers. To get some reliable insight, we got in touch with compliance officers at a few different firms to trade notes. What we learned is that due to recent lawsuits and an impending Section 508 refresh, firms across the industry are making web and online document accessibility a priority in 2015 and 2016.

This topic seems to be causing a ripple effect across the industry, starting with the major asset management firms. Not surprising, since the larger firms are typically prime targets for non-compliance trolling. The larger asset management firms are starting to prepare and some have even hired outside counsel. As for the smaller firms, most don’t have this on their radar yet, but it may not be long before it is.

What is an ADA Compliant PDF, Website?


In our digitally-dominated world, it’s becoming more and more important for companies to consider how their digital communications can be accessed by persons with disabilities. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s the law. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination and guarantees equal opportunity for persons with disabilities. It ensures that disabled persons have the same rights and access to public accommodations, including websites.

In order for a website or electronic document to be considered “accessible”, it must be designed to support technologies that the visually impaired use for reading. Such technologies include screen readers, special browsers, and screen magnifiers.

Adobe provides a very detailed guide on how to create an accessible PDF. WebAIM also has some good information on PDF accessibility and PDF “tagging” on their website.

What is Section 508?

Section 508 is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, passed by Congress in 1998. Currently, this law applies to government agencies and, in some cases, companies receiving government funding, like educational institutions. It requires that when U.S. Federal government agencies develop, procure, maintain, or use Electronic and Information Technology (EIT), federal employees and individuals with disabilities have the same access and usage rights as persons without disabilities. Section 508 covers all EIT broadly, including software, websites, web apps and hardware such as computers, networks, and other electronic office equipment.

Since 1998 the digital realm has exploded and, as a result, section 508 is on its way to being reformed. The requirements are being expanded to cover websites, web apps, and electronic documents, which is generally specific to official communication and final, formal documents produced by an organization.

Over time, the policies established by Section 508 have been adopted by a growing number of non-covered entities. Large employers choose to consider Section 508 standards when evaluating new technologies.

This shift has given Section 508 a sort of dual role, as both a set of regulatory guidelines for government entities and suppliers and a set of established best practices for the private sector. According to on-demand accessibility consultants, SSB Bart Group, the final rule could be published in the 4th quarter of 2015, with the earliest implementation time frame for the updated standards would be Q2 2016.  

Electronic documents will be explicitly expressed in the Section 508 refresh and firms will be looking to these new standards to define their document accessibility strategy.

Legal Action Regarding ADA Non-Compliance

Firms are showing concern over recent cases involving ADA non-compliance. Here are a couple cases of note:

Charles Schwab

Charles Schwab was targeted in 2010 when a visually impaired customer made claims concerning accessibility barriers on the Schwab.com website. No lawsuit was filed, but a formal process known as Structured Negotiations was used. As a result, Schwab entered an agreement with the claimant to make improvements in 2012 to make it easier for people with visual impairments to use their site in accordance with the WCAG 2.0 Level AA standard.

Visit the website of the law office of Lainey Feingold Disability Rights Legal Advocacy to read full details of the Charles Schwab Web Accessibility Agreement.

H&R Block

More recently, H&R Block was sued by the National Federation of the Blind. On April 8, 2013 a lawsuit was filed against the company claiming they had violated Title III of the ADA. According to the official press release, the NFB “alleged that individuals with disabilities, including those who require assistive technologies, cannot access the information, enjoy the services, or take advantage of the benefits offered through www.hrblock.com.”

On March 25, 2014, the court ruled in favor of the NFB, ordering H&R Block to comply with nondiscrimination requirements and Title III of the ADA. H&R Block was also ordered to pay a total of $45,000 ($22,500 each) to the defendants and $55,000 to the U.S. Department of Justice – Civil Rights Division.

These cases have some asset managers on high alert, and understandably so. These cases in combination with the Section 508 refresh are forcing some asset managers to allocate room in their 2015 budgets for producing compliant documents and websites.

Asset Managers: 2015 is the year to prepare


2015 will be the year of preparation for ADA compliance. Going forward, asset managers are taking a serious look at producing ADA compliant PDFs and websites in accordance with Section 508 standards. As a result, vendors who produce documents destined for digital channels will need to have the capabilities to produce accessible documents. Asset managers should add accessible PDF compliance to their technology RFPs very soon, if they haven’t already.

Asset managers who have pre-existing relationships with automation vendors will need to communicate with their vendors early to ensure the requirements can be met.

“Typically, when firms are anticipating a new regulation, they set aside some budget to make sure they can work with their vendor to make it happen,” said Cheryl Gelfond, VP of Operations at Synthesis Technology.

Gelfond also stated that firms might consider automating more documents outside of just factsheets and commentaries. Documents that aren’t always automated like fund guides and sales ideas may get integrated into the document automation mix to standardize and streamline their ADA compliant document production as much as possible.

A few of the compliance insiders I spoke with confirmed that this is in fact influencing how firms are allocating their budgets for 2015. 

Working with a Document Automation Vendor


When working with a vendor to produce your ADA compliant documents, it’s important to verify that the firm has the capabilities to help you achieve your accessibility goals. Make sure your vendor has the ability to produce and deliver files that contain all the necessary elements to produce a compliant PDF output suitable for web hosted download and/or viewing within web browsers. It’s also important to  make sure your vendor has XML production capabilities. Your vendor should be able to produce valid XML-tagged content streams in parallel with document output to support any XML-based requirements.  

In Conclusion

Many major asset management firms are placing a focus on ADA compliance in 2015. Most are making room in their budgets to ensure their websites and digital documents are accessible, in accordance with Section 508 standards. Currently, Section 508 only applies to federal agencies and organizations receiving government funding. However, due to recent ADA non-compliance suits and the impending Section 508 refresh, asset managers and other companies in the private sector are making moves to comply with these standards.

Helpful Resources on ADA Compliance and Section 508

If your firm is just getting started with a web accessibility initiative, wrapping your head around all of the information can be difficult. I hope my research has been helpful. Here is my list of credible resources on ADA compliance and the Section 508 refresh.

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Emilie is Head of Marketing at Synthesis. Emilie holds a Bachelor in Advertising from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has 15 years of integrated marketing experience. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, two adorable kids and two crazy cats. She fanatically roots for the Chicago Bears, despite their terrible record. Go Bears!

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