The PDF Accessibility Guide: How to Make Your Portable Documents Accessible

Kris Rivenburgh
Jun 17, 2019 · 12 min read
Flyer-poster that says, Kris’s Guide to PDF Accessibility with document icon and official certification badge over document.
Flyer-poster that says, Kris’s Guide to PDF Accessibility with document icon and official certification badge over document.
This guide to PDF accessibility is the perfect introduction to making documents accessible.

How to create accessible PDFs distilled into four bullet points:

  • Use Microsoft Word 2016 and Adobe Acrobat Pro DC
  • Structure your content and elements correctly inside Word
  • Clean up and enhance the converted PDF document using Adobe Acrobat Pro DC, correct tags are critical
  • Remediation of PDFs can be fairly simple or complex depending on the content inside a PDF and how well the document is tagged

Do you remember how Supermarket Sweep somehow transformed the drudgery of the grocery store into a wondrous land of food products and cash prizes?

Well, you can’t get any mega bonus points for chucking huge hams into your grocery cart with this Medium article but I can promise you The Best/Easiest Damn Guide to PDF Accessibility the web has ever seen.

Fair Warning:

This article is going to leave you feeling a little hollow. You know how you were secretly hoping PDF accessibility was a matter of ticking off a hidden box in Microsoft Word before you choose to save it as PDF?

Yeah, PDF accessibility is not that easy; it takes some doing and in this article I’m going to hand you over the foundational knowledge but then you’ll need to fill in the details.

Also, there is a range of accessibility when it comes to PDFs. Let’s hypothetically imagine accessibility on a scale of 0–10.

If you take care of the basics like:

  • document title
  • assigned language
  • implementing heading structure
  • correct tag usage and alignment
  • alt text
  • descriptive links
  • logical reading order
  • no images of text
  • color contrast ratio
  • text zoom up to 200%
  • not using color alone to convey information

Then your document might rest at say a “5” on the accessibility scale.

It’s not a complete image of text or “0” but it also doesn’t take address some of the more detailed, advanced, and/or complex measures that can be used to increase the accessibility of a document.

Some examples of advanced techniques:

  • adding bookmarks
  • Merging separated cells
  • associating header cell IDs with data cells
  • ensuring all heading tags appropriately correspond to content

While some of the basics may seem fairly simple, things can easily become more difficult when you take on the task of remediating a 250 page autotagged document.

Depending on how the document was created, there can be a lot of judgment calls to make that can be extremely expensive (both in terms of time and money cost) to account for.

Beyond having the knowledge necessary to remediate documents, there’s also the human error element.

PDF accessibility is not something that can be completely automated. With complex PDFs that include forms, graphs, tables, and media, remediation is a painstaking process that can take dozens of hours for a single document which opens the door to errors — and not just one or two or a few, a 250 page document can yield a handful of errors even from good remediation specialists.

Imagine taking a 250 page PDF that was previously an image of all text, using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to make the document editable, and then autotagging it, and trying to make a perfect document from those automatic tags.

It’s extremely difficult to do, particularly because automatic tags can be way off and dramatically affect the reading order, creating an exceptional amount of work to be done.

And the more dynamic the document is (i.e. the more non-text content there is), generally the more difficult it will be to remediate.

This is why the accessibility of documents ranges.

Ideally, in a perfect world, every remediation effort would produce a 10/10 document that meets PDF/UA standards or the criteria set out by Section 508 but that’s simply not possible with the volume of archived documents with high page counts and low accessibility levels.

Practically, we will end up with an array of documents that range in accessibility. Hopefully, with advancement of web accessibility, more documents move towards the 7–10 range.

If you need to produce a 10/10 document that is Section 508 compliant and meets PDF/UA standards, feel free to email me at kris@accessible.org or fill out the for help.


I had to include that last section to provide context for how cumbersome the process can be but now let’s get back to the how to make a PDF accessible lesson.

Basically, the closer you follow Microsoft and Adobe’s detailed guides, the more details you pay attention to, the more accessible your document will be.

Now that you have an overview and fair warning, let’s dive right in to this Olympic-size swimming pool.

PDF (portable document format) accessibility has two sides:

  1. Creating an accessible PDF
  2. Remediating an inaccessible PDF

And let’s be clear, unless you’ve gone out of your way to make your document accessible, it’s not going to be accessible so no delusional wishing and hoping over there.

Also, I won’t dance around the rodeo clown in the laundry room: Adobe Acrobat Pro DC and Microsoft Word are where this roller coaster ride ends up (Acrobat Pro, especially).

Rodeo clown with face paint in blue suspenders holding up loose Wrangler jeans with red and white striped shirt.
Rodeo clown with face paint in blue suspenders holding up loose Wrangler jeans with red and white striped shirt.
We can’t just pretend he isn’t there.

Pony up the money for these two pieces of software and you’ll have a much easier time with all of this (as well as a more accessible document). I know, I know Adobe is a $14.99 monthly recurring subscription now (ugh, wish we could just buy a one-time license) but there is no software even remotely close in terms of creating accessible PDFs.

Whether you want to create an accessible PDF or remediate an existing one, definitely read both sections below as the “make” section is going to lay the groundwork for the “remediate” section.

How to Make a PDF Accessible

PDF accessibility starts at the source document level, say for example Microsoft Word.

If you don’t structure the original document properly (in Word, Open Office, Libre Office, etc.), this is what makes it a pain to fix later.

Remember, PDF is a conversion from an original document to a final, theoretically uneditable document, so the more the original source is inaccessible, the more the converted doc will be a beast to slay.

Another huge factor in this whole game is Adobe Acrobat Pro DC. While you can create a baseline accessible document using just Microsoft Word, Acrobat Pro can take your document’s accessibility to another level, optimizing it — and even taking care of some items (such as advanced tables) that Word doesn’t provide for.

The gap in accessibility between Word and Acrobat Pro is going to depend on how complex the document you’re creating is (e.g. a text only essay vs. a presentation with tables and videos).

Tagging and Structure

Tagging is a big deal in PDF accessibility (80% of PDF accessibility comes down to tagging).

Tags mark up the content in a document (or web page, just FYI) so that screen readers know how to interpret and relay content to users:

The following tags all contribute to a PDF being readable by screen readers:

  • headings <H1>, <H2>, etc.
  • paragraphs <P>
  • tables <Table>
  • images <FIGURE>
  • bullet points (or lists) <LI>

Tags are automatically added in the source code of the document as you create it (you will need to save as a tagged document) but once you open up Adobe, you’ll need to verify 1) that the document is indeed tagged and 2) that the tags are correct (e.g. a header is not tagged as a paragraph).

(Note: Tags are different in PDFs vs. web page HTML. For example, an image tag is <img> in HTML but <Figure> in a PDF.)

Continuing on…

Woman typing on laptop at conference table with co-workers. Her phone is sitting nearby and a coffee is on the other side.
Woman typing on laptop at conference table with co-workers. Her phone is sitting nearby and a coffee is on the other side.
You secretly wanted to read a long article on PDF accessibility, didn’t you? Yeah, you did…

Alongside and with the help of proper tag usage, you’ll then need to make sure the following are taken care of in your original document (e.g. Word):

Title and language: Save your document with a descriptive title and have the language set as whatever language the document is written in (language is usually pre-taken care of).

Structure and navigation: Order and structure your content so that it is logical, sequential, orderly, and easy to find. Do this by including a table of contents, using headings correctly, ordering lists with bullet points, and inserting page numbers.

Important note on headings: you always start with an H1 (the main topic of the document) and then flow through to H2 (main subtopics) and then continue to H3s (smaller topics within the subtopics) and so on down the line.

Alt text: All images, graphs, charts, math formulas, etc. in your document need alt text so people who can’t see them can know what they are and what information is being conveyed.

Links: Your hyper links should have anchor text that is descriptive of where the link goes to (so someone knows what to expect when they click).

Media: Any embedded audio or video files should contain applicable transcripts, closed captioning, etc. so that alternative ways of accessing the content are available.

Tables: Structure and tag tables in your document so that they present in a logical order.

Note on tables: Tables actually need to be optimized in Acrobat Pro after the PDF conversion. Microsoft Word and other document creation software can only handle the most basic of tables. A great way to increase the accessibility of a table is to provide a caption that explains the data.

Also, create simple tables. So many times tables are created with multiple layers of headers and split headers at that — avoid this if at all possible.

Forms: To make form fields accessible, label the form to include the name, role, state, and value information. This enables forms to be read by screen readers.

Required fields and errors need to be clear and obvious and errors should provide instruction on how to fix them.

Like tables, form optimization is best left to Acrobat Pro after the source document creation.

These are the main accessibility items you need to take care of. This isn’t an exhaustive list so but it should cover 96% of documents created. If you add in an element, function, or content you don’t see here, account for it.

Hams sealed in plastic sitting on top of each other in a grocery story deli.
Hams sealed in plastic sitting on top of each other in a grocery story deli.
Those grocery store hams are worth so many points! (Supermarket Sweep reference from above)

The reason tagging and structure are important is because they make navigation easier, organize information, and make things easier/quicker to find.

Without structured items and tags, you’re at best looking at a flat text document that can be read by a screen reader from the first word to the last word.

That makes the content only minimally accessible.

If you don’t have a vision impairment, imagine that the only way you can sort through a 40 page document is by reading it from start to finish.

Creating structure through tagging will organize information so that, say, you can get right to a pertinent section of the document without having to read through 25 pages to get to it.

To make document accessibility even more tangible for you, here’s a real life example of document accessibility in action:

You decide to start a new section in your document and to create the heading for this new section, you increase the font size from 14px to 24px, change the font style from Times New Roman to Arial, and bold it.

This is the incorrect approach. Instead, you should specifically create a heading within Microsoft Word. If you want to style that heading, you can customize it to match your chosen font appearance.

Styles in Microsoft Word allow you to preset how your headings will look (e.g. an H1 is 32 size Arial font and bold) and quickly and easily mark up text.

How to Remediate an Inaccessible PDF

Remediating or fixing an inaccessible PDF is not a pursuit of perfection (there are limitations if you don’t have the source document), it’s an attempt to make an old PDF as accessible as you can under the circumstances.

If you have the original source document (e.g. original-document.docx), then you’re in great shape (you can approach the edit using the accessibility framework outlined above) but if you only have the PDF with which to work from, you have to do the best you can with what you have.

Here are the steps to take:

#1 Run a scan

The first thing you can do is use Adobe’s accessibility checker to spot weak points. This can’t catch everything but it gives you a feel for the accessibility of a document.

#2 Check and fix text

If your old PDF’s text is an image (to find out if it is, just try and select the text), use Adobe optical character recognition (OCR) to convert the image to actual text.

#3 Check for tags, optimize tags

An accessible PDF will always be tagged. First, make sure tags are in place and then make sure 1) the tags are correct and 2) the tags are showing in logical order.

#4 Manually (or double) check other items

Next, examine the following:

  • Meaningful images have descriptive alt text
  • Links use descriptive anchor text (note: if not created properly in the source document, hyper links can be inaccessible even if they are active. Click Edit PDF and then link to accessibly remediate links)
  • Language and document title are present
  • Document contains important bookmarks

What are the Legal Requirements for PDFs?

As far as the United States goes, nothing is specifically on the books at a federal level for private entities.

However, Section508.gov and HHS.gov each provide their own checklist for entities that must follow their agency rules:

(Word doc)

These checklists are a great reference point.

Also, Adobe has a less stringent but easier to follow requirements for .

The commonly referenced standards when it comes to PDF accessibility are techniques and PDF/UA or PDF/Universal Accessibility.

To further complicate things, as detailed above, PDF accessibility ranges on a spectrum.

A completely inaccessible PDF is just an image of a wall of text. That’s going to make you very eligible for a web accessibility lawsuit.

And then accessibility ranges up from there. As of 2019, if you use Word + Acrobat Pro and make a good faith effort with the following, you’re probably in great shape:

  • usage of tags
  • descriptive document title
  • headings
  • alt text
  • links
  • table of contents (if called for)

If you make a more dynamic document with forms, tables, and multimedia, you take on more responsibility in making these elements and functions accessible.

You’ll want to consult listed above to Section 508, HHS, and WCAG for more instructions and guidelines on PDF accessibility.

The #1 thing you can do is to NOT have any PDFs that are walls of text as an image.

After that, continue to increase your document’s accessibility by checking off as many PDF accessibility bullet points as you can.

Resources

You now have the framework to competently approach PDF accessibility but how do you actually do it?

This is where the details begin to drop into place and fill in your skeleton outline.

Here are the best resources by Microsoft and Adobe:

How to make your Microsoft Word document accessible by Microsoft:

How to create and verify accessible PDFs by Adobe:

How to create accessible forms inside Adobe:

How to create and repair tables inside Adobe:

How to use the accessibility checker by Adobe:

How to repair or remediate old PDFs by Adobe:

How WCAG 2.0 corresponds to PDF accessibility by Adobe:

Summary

For those of you who strive for perfection, this is going to be a long, winding, and convoluted road — especially if you have complex documents with video and audio clips, forms, tables, charts, graphs, and/or dozens of sections, etc.

My advice is to take a basic framework approach to PDF accessibility and work from there.

Right now the PDFs that are creating the most turbulence are not the ones with incorrect headings (e.g. using H3 vs. H2) but the ones that are completely inaccessible and unreadable by screenreaders.

If you have the source document, start with the Microsoft Word guide in the resources section above and begin checking off the bullet points there.

Then, grab a license of Adobe Acrobat Pro DC, and start working down the line on the big stuff — don’t get lost in the details.

Let’s bring our documents up to minimum accessibility first and then build on that.


Help

If you need help with remediating your documents to meet PDF/UA standards, and/or be Section 508 or ADA compliant, you can contact me.

Note that just like websites, there are no formal guidelines under the ADA as to what makes a PDF compliant but, if you meet PDF/UA standards and the criteria set forth for Section 508 PDFs, you’re extremely, extremely likely to meet any interpreted accessibility standard under the ADA.

The only reason I can’t state that as fact is because what makes a document accessible under the ADA hasn’t been written into any regulations.

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