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7 Basic Steps to Making PDFs More Accessible

Nov 19, 2018

Web accessibility encompasses a broad spectrum, but digitized documents are too-often forgotten in the process. The Portable Document Format (PDF) is one such type of digital document — a very common and widely used file type online, created with the intention of being able to be opened and displayed on any device.

PDF accessibility is as important as any other piece of your digital presence. To be as accessible as possible to all internet users, PDFs require specific and deliberate structure and tags, in addition to all applicable WCAG success criteria like color contrast minimums. From organizing the layout of the PDF, to ensuring that its contents are text searchable, the tips below can help you better serve your audience’s accessibility needs.

Use the right tools

There are a number of software products that can assist you in making your PDFs accessible, but the more advanced versions from Adobe (such as Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Acrobat Pro) have the Accessibility Setup Assistant Wizard that can help expedite the process.

The ‘Make Accessible’ feature

Adobe Acrobat has an easy-to-use tool that can walk you through the preliminary steps of making your PDF accessible. To get started, go to Tools > Action Wizard > Make Accessible. This feature will do some of the heavy lifting for you by automatically tagging the document; however, someone with strong knowledge of tagging, heading structure, and alt text requirements will need to update and override the tags to ensure they’re logical.

Free programs like Google Docs and Open Office also have tools built in to help make documents accessible.

Make navigation easy

When creating a PDF, keep in mind that there are navigational aids that users need to properly understand your document, which include:

  • Links
  • Headings
  • Bookmarks
  • Table of Contents

Don’t make your readers sift through an entire document looking for specific information — help them find it. Additionally, the more consistent in structure and navigation your PDF is, the easier it will be for internet users to consume it in its entirety. Remember, intuitive and consistent navigation is beneficial to everyone, not only people with disabilities.

You should avoid using color and sensory characteristics alone as distinguishing indicators of a page, number, input field, hyperlink or other component that conveys meaning or prompts a response.

Add tags

Screen readers and other text-to-speech devices require tags in documents like PDFs in order to present the information in a way that makes sense to the user. When your PDF is tagged, headings, paragraphs, tables, sections, and other page elements relay the information to the person using assistive technology. Tagging your PDF is essential whether the person is reading on desktop or a mobile device.

Include alt text and make images and other non-text content searchable

It’s important to make sure that visual elements like logos and implanted text have a text alternative that is available to assistive technology, just like is required on any web page. You may also try converting your document to text, making it more accessible and searchable, using Acrobat’s optical character recognition (OCR) tool. Searchable text allows the user to understand what information is needed to fill out forms and understand the rest of the content in the document.

Include instructions with fillable forms

If your PDF includes form fields for inputting information or boxes that need to be checked, you should ensure that they are properly identified paired with instructions on how to complete them correctly.

Bring in the PDF accessibility experts

Testing and remediating your PDFs for accessibility not only provides usable information to those with disabilities, it also makes the document simpler and more navigable for everyone.

We can help with remediation of your existing PDFs and other digital documents in addition to helping you maintain future compliance by providing training to members of your team.

No pressure and obligation-free — we look forward to helping you achieve, maintain, and prove digital compliance.

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