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

Kris Rivenburgh
Jun 17 · 10 min read
This guide to PDF accessibility is the perfect introduction to making documents accessible.

How to create accessible PDFs distilled into three bullet points:

  • Use Microsoft Word 2016 and Adobe Acrobat Pro DC
  • Structure and tag your content and elements inside Word
  • Clean up the converted PDF document using Adobe Acrobat Pro

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, that’s not how this cookie crumbles; 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. For new documents, we’re trying to get into the 7–10 range. For remediated documents, we’re hoping to get into the 5–8 range.

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

So those are my pre-article disclosures. Now you can’t raise your Twitter pitchforks at me in good conscious.

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 in the asterisks 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 will take your document’s accessibility a few steps farther, optimizing it — and even take care of some accessibility items that Word doesn’t provide for.

The gap in accessibility between Word and Acrobat Pro is really going to depend on how involved 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 accessibility.

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 created in the source code of the document as you create it (you will need to save as a tagged document) but later on you will likely need to check for tags inside your PDF so it’s important to know about tags and recognize them.

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

Alright, hold on. I can feel you starting to get anxious over there. Maybe there’s even a little panic in your pancakes.

Don’t worry, I get the “Hand over the goods, Poindexter” aspect to all of this and I’m going to try and make everything as easy as humanly possible but I have to set the table so you understand what’s happening and have foundational knowledge for document accessibility.

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 document:

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 (header tags) correctly, ordering lists with bullet points, and inserting page numbers.

An important note on headers for the uninitiated, you 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 that 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.

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 creation is also 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.

Why this is important: 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.

Structure and tags are going to organize the 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.

How to Remediate an Inaccessible PDF

Remediating or fixing an inaccessible PDF is usually 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’s a tremendous start.

#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 to convert the image to actual text.

#3 Check for tags, optimize tags

An accessible PDF is going to contain tags. First, make sure tags are in place and then make sure it’s the correct tags that are in place.

#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 in order
  • Document contains page numbers and table of contents (where applicable)

What are the Legal Requirements for PDFs?

As far as the United States goes, nothing is specifically on the books at a federal level. In other words, I can’t cite you a law that says what you need to do to make PDFs accessible because none exists.

The commonly referenced guide when it comes to web accessibility is WCAG 2.0 AA but, beyond generic principles, it’s not overly helpful when it comes to creating and remediating PDFs.

To further complicate things, 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
  • headers
  • 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.

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

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:

https://support.office.com/en-us/article/make-your-word-documents-accessible-to-people-with-disabilities-d9bf3683-87ac-47ea-b91a-78dcacb3c66d?ocmsassetID=HA101999993&CorrelationId=9fa8b9e2-0528-49f3-b5a3-d7ddef06b254&ui=en-US&rs=en-US&ad=US

How to create and verify accessible PDFs by Adobe:

https://helpx.adobe.com/acrobat/using/create-verify-pdf-accessibility.html#make_PDFs_accessible

How to create accessible forms inside Adobe:

https://www.adobe.com/accessibility/products/acrobat/creating-accessible-forms.html

How to create and repair tables inside Adobe:

https://www.adobe.com/accessibility/products/acrobat/pdf-repair-repair-tables.html

How to use the accessibility checker by Adobe:

https://www.adobe.com/accessibility/products/acrobat/using-acrobat-pro-accessibility-checker.html

How to repair or remediate old PDFs by Adobe:

https://www.adobe.com/accessibility/products/acrobat/acrobat-pro-dc-pdf-accessibility-repair-workflow.html

How WCAG 2.0 corresponds to PDF accessibility by Adobe:

http://blogs.adobe.com/accessibility/2012/01/wcag-2-0-techniques-for-pdf.html

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 headers (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.

If you have any questions, definitely leave a comment.

Kris Rivenburgh

Written by

Kris is an ADA website compliance and accessibility consultant. He is the author of The ADA Book https://ADABook.com and the founder of https://accessible.org.

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