WebABLE.TV is pleased to introduce the third program in the video series, “Champions of Accessibility”, which features those pioneers, thought leaders and professionals who have exhibited exemplary dedication to the community of people with disabilities in the field of accessibility and assistive technology. Adam Spencer, President of AbleDocs, is featured as a Champion of Accessibility for this third program.


 Hi, I'm Dave Gardy for WebABLE TV from our studios here near Washington, DC for this special presentation, Champions of Accessibility, another in the series. And with us today is Adam Spencer, who's President and CEO of AbleDocs. I'm gonna turn it over now to Mike Paciello of webable.com to begin.

Thanks, Dave. Adam, good to see you again, buddy.

Great to see you, Mike. Thanks for having me.

Thanks for joining us on our show. One of the things that we wanted to do when we put this series together is we wanted to capture different individuals, for one, but also leaders in their field who are champions really both by their exemplar, but also by how they're respected by the community. But really one of the first questions that I had for you, because as long as we've known each other, I'm not really sure I know this part of it, is, how did you get started in the field of accessibility in the first place?

It's a great question. There are actually two stories to that, but the short one is basically my mom told me to. She was working for one of the banks here in Canada and recognized that she was having problems finding providers of document accessibility services. And she had asked me to take a look at a file for one of her staff and I did, and two weeks later, he came back and said it was the best he'd ever read. And six months after that, after her coming back and forth saying, I really think you should get into this full time, she pulled an I'm your mother and said, write me a business plan, and I did, and we founded my previous firm, and here we are today.

Awesome. It's funny because my next follow-up question is what's your motivation, but I think your mom probably had a big influence at that level.

There's nothing better than the threat from your mom. And ironically, 12 years later, she now works for us and has been a vital part of our success. It's been a really grateful circle journey together.

That's awesome. That is also, that's interesting in that we often talk now, I think we're at that point in the timeline of accessibility where we can start talking about generations of accessibility. And so, you've got your mom, I've got two of my sons, and we're starting to see that generational accessibility. That's really great. Talk about-

Actually I-

Go ahead.

Sorry, I was just going to add, we're really a family affair, as well. We have so many of our staff who either have their significant other or their kids working for the firm, as well. And it's a really amazing, the accessibility world as a whole is an amazing family, but the number of legacies that we have from generation to generation, I couldn't agree more.

Yeah, yeah. I think it's awesome. We've got an ecosphere that I think people are envious of to be honest with you.

Totally agree.

Let's talk about AbleDocs. AbleDocs, in addition to your own leadership in the field, but AbleDocs itself is a recognized leader in the field of electronic document accessibility. Give me a little background about the company, a little bit more about your vision and your mission, and what you see as an organization.

Yeah. The company was really founded from an understanding of what we felt the market was missing. There was a lack of enterprise-grade providers in the space, recognizing the types of customers that we work with, recognizing the challenges that a lot of the smaller providers were facing, using out of the box software, not recognizing that this is truly a business process change challenge with document accessibility in particular. It's not just a functional, let me remediate a file and then I'm done. It's how are we remediating files more effectively and efficiently and sustainably. And the way that I used to make documents accessible wasn't a sustainable approach. We looked at how do we bring the best and the brightest under one umbrella, and that was AbleDocs. And we really brought together the leading engineers and developers and remediators under one roof and we've continued that expansion since our founding in 2019. By the end of June, we'll have offices in nine countries and really looking at how we ultimately make ourselves obsolete. And that's really our mission. Our mission is to make document accessibility an integrated part of document creation rather than an add-on at the end or a last mile thought. We wanna make sure that we're building software that eliminates that need from the word go.

Being in the client's seat, so to speak, and I'm listening to you talk, that sounds like a business value proposition that I could grab as a client. Am I understanding that correctly?

You are. We looked at how are documents being created on a regular basis by an organization. And the answer is, there isn't one way, there are hundreds of different ways that content is created, even from an idea perspective through, is this going to be posted as a document? Is it going to be posted as a webpage? Is it a tweet? Is it an Instagram post? How is all of that coming together? And so, that's why we have over 20 products and services in document accessibility rather than just here's a tool, or here's a service, or here's a training, it's how do all of those pieces come together. Because for most organizations, they need a combination of multiple solutions. We don't have a customer that's using less than three of our offerings because of it being tailored to those different needs.

I like that holistic, end-to-end life cycle kind of approach to it because you're right, it starts at creation until release and everything in between, so that sounds good. An enterprise could buy into that.

We really have four pillars within the company. It's create, remediate, validate, and educate. And all of those pieces combined are how we ensure a sustainable approach to document accessibility for an organization. We get so many calls where, we have 10,000 files. Okay, that's great. We can solve that problem today, but how are you going to solve that problem going forward? Because it's not a one and done. For web accessibility, it's the same. Okay, we made our website accessible. What do you do with the next piece of content? Making sure people are aware of the implications of how they're creating that content and building a sustainable approach to drive that forward for the documents to come.

How about your clients? Do you have any success stories that you can talk to or speak of? I know oftentimes a lot of these things go under NDA and whatnot, but it's always good to share a success story where you can.

It is. And there's obviously thousands of customers that we work with, but I would definitely love to touch base on one in particular in the higher education space, where we were working with Drexel University and helping a student work through their undergrad, work through their doctorate, and ultimately help them graduate to a point where they're now a fully engaged member of private enterprise, ensuring that their documents are accessible. And you see that continuation from making sure that we're providing accessible content from the word go and that sustains someone throughout life. And it's really not just a feel-good story, but we know that that commitment from us with them is that back-and-forth relationship. How do we tweak this? How do we remember that this is about a user? There's a person at the end of that document. And I think those of us in the industry who are integrated with, we need to fix this. Yeah, we need to fix this, but we're fixing it for this person. And it's really a tremendous success that we've been able to carry on for many years.

Good for you, excellent. As an accessibility champion, do you view your role and your responsibility, or excuse me, how do you view your role and your responsibility to the market, to the whole market, not just electronic document accessibility?

We're a piece of the pie. And I think one of the things that I realized very early on was we needed to specialize and we needed to be able to compliment the offerings of so many others within the industry, because we can't be a Jack of all trades and be amazing at all of it. But when we looked at how we were going to approach document accessibility, we needed to be that pillar. We wanted to make sure that every single file that we were producing was going to be accessible, usable, and compliant. We're usable for end user, we're compliant for the provider of that content, and we really are in the business of risk mitigation for our customers who are paying our bills based on the climate in the industry. When organizations are trying to help their clients with documents, they come to us because they know that we can be trusted. We have the largest remediation team in the world, we're the only company in the world to guarantee the compliance of every file we produce and back it with a $10 million liability guarantee, and we really strive to be that partner to our client, making sure that we're working with them not just to fix today, but how do we make this going forward?

Awesome, very good. Let's shift gears just a little bit to a subject, a topic that you and I are probably as familiar with as anyone, PDF accessibility. PDF generally has this bad reputation of being non-disability friendly. Why do you think that's true and how do you view PDF and how do you view PDF and whether or not it's the only electronic format that has challenges and problems today?

Well, I think to quote the illustrious Taylor Swift, haters gonna hate, and I think, with all due respect, there was a reason why PDF was hated for a long time. It was horrendously inaccessible. And I think people still have a problem understanding what the format needs in order to make it accessible. That being said, if you know what you're doing, or if you're using the right software, PDF is just as accessible as any other available format. And the one comment that I would make is that we expect accessibility to be this immediate, everyone needs to do it, we're all going to hold hands, sing kumbaya, and make the world a more accessible place, but I'm not sure why we have that expectation. It's a lot to learn. And I think the web accessibility space is an extension of great web design, whereas nobody goes to school to learn PDF. We're expecting authors to now be experts at understanding the mechanics of a file with software that was historically not built for that. And we're seeing that shift, and I know we're, obviously, part of that equation. But once you receive an accessible file, particularly from us, you're going to have as rich of an experience in any other format. And where we get concerned for formats, the format wars, as it is, and I've been speaking about this for years, wouldn't we be better championing the capabilities of the format rather than saying, I hate this and I want that. For accessibility to be sustainable, we need to make it easy for organizations to implement. And when we see formats, like EPUB, EPUB's a great format, but you're not going to get a bank issuing you an EPUB bank statement. It's just not going to happen, at least in the foreseeable future. But PDF is a massive format that loads at least 2 billion files to the public-facing internet every single year, not including all the secured side. We have to embrace it. We have to make sure that the content's accessible so that users can use it and forget about what it was like 10 years ago when it was definitely a much bigger challenge.

Yeah. I think this is, what you're saying there is also a message that I think comes out of the PDF Association, which is sort of something else I want to talk about. The PDF Association is all about the value add that PDF brings to a user, but particularly, they've had a very strong position on accessibility. Can you talk a little bit about the association, its mission, and its value to the community?

It's a great question. And I think the value of the association, we've been members, and we're actually a top-tier partner member of the association because of their commitment and our commitment to making sure that PDF is better understood, accessibility is integrated by more developers, and the association's goal is to raise that awareness, inform developers, inform users about what to expect from an accessible PDF, and the commitment from the technical working groups, the learning working groups, the marketing working groups to raise that awareness and change the history, or the historical perception, of what is a PDF file. And the work that's done by industry experts from around the world, we actually just had our, excuse me, we had our committee meeting, what should have been in Paris, but unfortunately, that was an unavailable option this year. But you've got leaders from around the world getting together and brainstorming how we make this better. And the leadership truly cares about pushing the accessibility of PDF. And it's just been a tremendous honor and privilege to sit on those committees and work with even our direct competitors in a collaborative way, making sure that we are pushing the standard as far forward as we can. And the world needs the type of cooperation we see in the PDF Association in more organizations.

Agreed, agreed. I really think that's a functional purpose and role of a trade association in general, so it's good to see that you guys are pushing forward at that level. Last question, Adam, what do you see are the biggest challenges of document accessibility? And what advice do you have for organizations and businesses who produce and distribute, as you mentioned earlier, at an enterprise level, electronic docs?

Well, I'll start with that challenge side. I think organizations who are producing that content need to realize that there one, isn't a silver bullet, there are multiple silver bullets and you've gotta pick solutions that are going to be sustainable from a business perspective. We often forget that this is also a business decision. It's not just, we need to incorporate this, someone has to pay for this, as well. And if they tackle document accessibility upfront, proactively, rather than reactively, to either legislation or litigation, it is going to be significantly more cost effective for them to embed accessibility, rather than reacting to an inaccessible complaint. Asking the right questions. Are your files compliant? Are you sure they're compliant? The thing I always say to people, even when you're selecting a competitor of ours, send us a file, I'll let you know. Independently, I will put my hat on from a committee level standpoint, from the ISO level, and say, this is accessible or not. And I think people are afraid to admit that they don't know. And so, organizations that are trying to in-house this or find that silver bullet, they need to be asking the questions, is this really going to solve our biggest problem, which is producing inaccessible content in a non-sustainable way. If they can answer those questions, then they're picking the right vendor. As we move forward, you look at how big of a shift we've seen in understanding document accessibility and it's getting better and we're seeing better software. And you'll be seeing announcements coming from us in the next few weeks and months looking at the end user perspective. We announced that we were awarded a grant from the Canadian federal government to build a new, fully-accessible mobile reader for Android and iOS to interact with all of that rich accessible functionality in a PDF file that has often been forgotten. And we wanna make sure that the end user is the primary driver of that accessible content and that the organizations that are implementing this, it's just now part of their process, as opposed to an accommodation or a reaction.

Good stuff, good stuff, Adam. Well, Adam Spencer, President of AbleDocs, friend and colleague for many years, it's been good to be with you. Appreciate a lot of your sage advice and wish AbleDocs and you best of luck as you move forward in your business. Dave, I'll toss it back to you in the studio.

Thank you, Mike. Excellent interview. Appreciate your time, Adam. And that was Adam Spencer. He's President and CEO of AbleDocs. For another Champions of Accessibility, I'm Dave Gardy from our studios here at WebABLE TV near Washington, DC. Thanks for joining us.

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