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5 Must-Fix Accessibility Issues with Your PDFs

May 2, 2017

In making your content more accessible to people with disabilities, the measures you take aren't limited to just your website. Portable Document Format (PDF) files should also be included in your mission toward accessibility. When it comes to PDFs, your goal should be to create a document or form that can be used both with and without the help of assistive technologies like screen readers, Braille embossers, and alternative input devices.

Although Adobe Acrobat and Reader contain many accessibility features to assist users with disabilities and to improve compatibility with assistive technologies, there are many design considerations that you should consider during PDF creation. The following document design tips can make forms, letters, and other PDFs easier to use for everyone — even those who don't have disabilities.

1. Make all text searchable.

PDFs that are image-rich can present some difficulties, particularly if those images represent logos, instructions, addresses, or any other important information that should be searchable text. Assistive technology can't read or detect the words in an image — they can only be read as text. This also makes it impossible for users to select or edit text or otherwise manipulate the PDF to be more accessible.

Make sure that any logos and implanted text have been converted to searchable text using Acrobat’s optical character recognition (OCR) tool. This is crucial for information that the user needs in order to fill out their form or to get insight from the document.

For images that are in the PDF for aesthetic reasons and don't convey important information, use alternative text descriptions so that screen readers can understand them and relay their content. Any other multimedia present, as well as tool tips, should also include alternative text.

2. Be mindful of assistive technology when setting security features.

PDFs may have restrictions as to what the users can do to the document, such as copying or editing, which makes it difficult to convert on-screen text to speech or Braille. Pay attention to Acrobat's security settings so that the contents will be protected but don't interfere with assistive technology.

3. Keep navigation consistent and simple.

PDFs can include navigational aids like links, headings, bookmarks, and a table of contents so that the user doesn't need to go through the entire document or search the text for something specific.

Make sure that the identification of these elements is consistent so that users can easily navigate the document. Avoid references to colors or sensory characteristics when referring to a page number, input field, hyperlink, or other aspect of creating the document, as these characteristics won’t necessarily be available to every user.

4. Use document structure tags to define the reading order.

Screen readers and text-to-voice programs require documents to be structured. These tags will identify headings, paragraphs, tables, sections, and other page elements to logically relay the information to readers using assistive technology. Having document tags also enables PDFs to be resized on mobile devices with ease.

5. For fillable forms, don't hesitate to include more instructions.

If your PDF contains interactive aspects, such as fields to fill out or boxes to check, the user must be able to enter values in these boxes without much difficulty. Fillable areas of the PDF need to be clearly identified and contain tips on how to properly complete them and prevent errors. To make it easy and stress-free for users, don’t set a time limit on inputting information or filling out forms.

Alternative text is also helpful for input fields and other multimedia that the user can interact with.


Increasing the accessibility of your PDFs is much simpler with the more advanced versions of Adobe Reader, Acrobat, and Pro because there is the Accessibility Setup Assistant Wizard meant to expedite most accessibility features. These programs also have options to optimize output for assistive technologies, such as Braille printers and text-to-voice modules.

No matter what type of software you are using to create PDFs — including free solutions like Google Docs and OpenOffice — adhering to these design considerations can make your forms and other documents easier for all users to read and navigate. Avoiding references to color to convey meaning, using structure tags, including ample instruction, and making all text searchable are simple steps that you can take to make the PDF more usable to a wider audience.

Putting these design considerations in motion also makes your PDFs more usable by all users, not just users with disabilities.

BoIA can help you with PDFs remediation and Training.

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