1. Can I even make these old PDF files accessible using ONLY the capabilities of Acrobat Pro XI?
Yes. However a free tool like the PDF Accessibility Checker (PAC) v 1.3 (http://www.access-for-all.ch/en/pdf-lab/pdf-accessibility-checker-pac/dl132.html) can help you do the job more easily (with a handy screen-reader preview feature) and more thoroughly (with a much better accessibility checker than the one built into Acrobat).
2. How much work (time) might it take to do this work on just one 100-page User Guide that is full of tables, illustrations, and also some screen captures?
It depends on how accessible do you need the documents to be. Assuming that you want to meet WCAG 2.0 guidelines (http://www.w3.org/WAI/GL/WCAG20-TECHS/pdf.html) – quite a bit of time and effort and learning and practice is required. With practice, you can get the time down to a few minutes a page, on average. Simple pages with a few paragraphs will fly by, but things like complex tables really slow things down and impact the average.
3. Most of our tables do NOT comply with the "every row must have the same number of columns and every column must have the same numbers of rows" rule. Now what? Can we even make these files fully accissible?
Yes, but it may take quite a bit of time and effort. In some cases you may be able to add blank cells to the table tag structure to “regularize” the table. In other cases you may be able to deviate from the visual table representation and tag the content as a series of sub-headings and smaller, regular tables or lists. In some cases you will have to bite the bullet and use spanning properties and header IDs. I find the screen-reader preview feature of PAC 1.3 to be indispensable in dealing with complex tables. By the way, "every row must have the same number of columns and every column must have the same numbers of rows" is a best practice and an Acrobat XI rule, but is not required by WCAG 2.0 or ISO 14289. Spanning properties and header IDs are the way to deal with complex tables that cannot be made "regular".
4. I don't fully understand how alternate text for pictures/illustrations work. If you assign alternate text does that mean that the picture or illustration is NOT displayed at all in a screen reader?
Any image that conveys information must have alternate text that coveys that same meaning. Yes, a screen reader will read the alt text, as it cannot display the image. An image that provides visual appeal but no information should be tagged as “background”, which removes it from the document structure (that is, a screen reader will ignore it).
Hope this helps. Please feel free to post any follow up questions.
a ‘C’ student
Thanks VERY much for the detailed information in your reply!
That will get me started in the right direction much more quickly now.
We have a livecycle form that allows people to save an image with an image field and other data in some text fields.
The users having problems are using Acrobat Pro XI. They seem to be able to open the form, fill in some data and save the data just fine except for this image.
The image does not display when the user re-opens the form. However, if another user opens that saved form then that user can see the image OK.
Any ideas what might be happening?