PDF Accessibility

Posted on Tuesday, 31 March 2020 by Marissa Sapega

A portable document format, better known as a PDF, is a file format that can be shared without being easily modified. It can also be opened and reviewed on most computers and operating systems through several platforms. While this is a convenient option for most people, document accessibility remains an issue for those with disabilities.

What is an accessible PDF?

Individuals with varied disabilities often use a tool called a screen reader to access digital content like web pages and PDFs. A screen reader, as the name implies, will literally read the content that is on a screen.

However, the screen reader will only be able to read the text that is hard-coded in the content. For example, a screen reader cannot interpret an image and describe it to a visually impaired person, it would simply note that there was an image. This can be a very poor experience for someone using a screen reader if the content has graphics that are critical to communicating the content, like graphs or illustrations that convey a lot of information. However, one way to ensure that anyone can experience the images comparably is to include alternative text (“alt text”) that describes the image. This way, a screen reader will be able to read the alt text to the user so they don’t miss out.

An accessible PDF is simply a PDF that has been tagged correctly to enable a screen reader to read the information in an order that makes sense to the user. Just like with a web page, a screen reader user will have immense trouble navigating a PDF without the proper measures in place.

What is a “tagged” PDF?

Now we’re getting into the good stuff! An HTML web page is created by stringing together a multitude of tags. For example, an image tag is used to display an image, a paragraph tag is for paragraph copy, and you have a series of header tags that are used to determine the order of the page. Best practices for building a web page require using an H1 (main header) for the title of the page, and using subsequent headers (H2, H3, and so on) for sub-headers. The more granular the sub-header, the higher the number of the header tag.

A tagged PDF uses these same tags so a screen reader will be able to understand the correct order of the page element.

How to make a PDF accessible

There are a few ways to make accessible PDFs, but the technique depends on the format used to create the original file. Some are easier than others. For example, to make an accessible PDF from a Microsoft Word document, first start by using the native PDF accessibility checker to ensure the document is in a good state to be made into an accessible PDF. Once you have determined that it is ready to be made into a PDF, follow the instructions from Microsoft for how to use the accessibility option depending on your operating system and version of Microsoft Word, then save the document as a PDF.

Adobe Acrobat has a native PDF accessibility checker option as well as the ability to make a PDF accessible. Depending on your level of familiarity with the native Acrobat tools and size/complexity of your document, you may want to contact an expert to help.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and PDFs

An “ADA compliant” PDF is an irrelevant term because there is not a specific set of criteria that can be met at 100% included in the ADA itself. Hence, we shouldn’t think in term of “compliance” to the ADA, but rather meeting the requirements of the ADA: ensuring public accommodations are accessible to people with disabilities. Since the DOJ has reaffirmed multiple times that websites can be considered places of public accommodation, PDFs, while not websites themselves, are digital documents that are often part of a website. Ipso facto, if your PDFs are not accessible, you could be opening your organization up to a huge risk, not to mention excluding a large part of the population.


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