I am evaluating accessible-document work flows for my school and several others. For the most part, this means documents in the PDF file format. Like so many aspects to this topic, none of the solutions are easy and/or cut and dried. It would seem that applying an existing process for web accessibility would do the job, but this isn't so.
The web work flow is a poor fit because of the disparate skill sets between the document creators. Most colleges have professional web designers, especially for their main pages, but the skill of those creating PDF documents vary greatly across the campus. For every skilled designer using inDesign, you have dozens of instructors creating quick, unstructured and inaccessible PDF documents with MS Word. You certainly can achieve a level of accessibility with MS Word, but most of the instructors on my campus don't take the necessary extra steps.
One interesting response I've heard on several campuses is just a flat out dismissal of PDF as the wrong tool for the job. It is hard to find evidence, however, that colleges are decreasing their dependence on PDF documents. Duff Johnson (a person worth following if this topic interests you) wrote Why PDF? outlining reasons for PDF's entrenchment in our electronic-document systems. He makes very good points. Don't bet on PDF disappearing anytime soon, in spite of what some experts are saying.
It's doubtful that one work flow is going to work on most campuses for PDF production. Certainly professional designers need to add accessibility to their skill sets so that what they create for their university works for all users. Faculty, on the other hand, need to create short documents and frequently do so quickly.
A Work Flow for Faculty
What then is a good work flow for faculty? As someone who was an instructor thirty years ago and remembers creating mimeographed syllabi, handouts, tests etc., I understand the notion that the faculty creates course material from start to finish. I think it may be time to reconsider this idea, particularly in the electronic age. A PDF document is so much more versatile than its paper counterpart. It can be searchable, which is real benefit for a long handout. Carefully made it can be accessible to people with a wide variety of print disabilities.
Faculty have become accustomed to creating these course materials in a word processor, usually MS Word, and then hitting "save to pdf." That's quick, but the resulting PDF is unstructured and certainly not very accessible. Ironically, making an accessible syllabus PDF from MS Word is not that difficult. Unfortunately, compared to typing it out quickly and hitting "save to pdf" it seems more complicated. I recently asked a departmental communications director, "Are you after wide-spread behavior-modification of your faculty or do you want accessible syllabi and handouts?" The response was a reflective pause.
So what am I proposing we consider? What if faculty could "knock out" a syllabus or handout in Word and then a departmental staffer creates the accessible PDF? Remember, I said that going from MS Word to an accessible PDF is not that difficult. Adding staff usually raises an eyebrow or two, but in this case one or two well-trained work-study students should be able to handle it. What about more problematic elements such as tables? They're not extremely problematic it is just that they cannot always be rendered accessible in Word alone and sometimes require some additional work in a tool like Acrobat Pro.
The computer gave us a quick and simple way to create paper documents. Electronic documents are vastly different from paper. Paper is rigidly locked into its presentation format. Electronic documents are fluid and dynamic. They can be "read" in various ways and soon can be translated into other languages.
The problem is we continue to use a "paper" work flow for an electronic document.