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Converting a PDF to an Accessible PDF: Quick Tips

Apr 19, 2024

All digital content must be accessible for people with disabilities — not just websites. If you use documents to collect or deliver information, those documents should meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for digital accessibility. 

Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) has built-in capabilities to support accessibility, and Adobe Acrobat has features that allow authors to make documents more accessible.

But unfortunately, most authors don’t use those tools correctly. Adobe estimates that more than 90% of PDFs are at least partially inaccessible for individuals with disabilities. 

For businesses that use PDFs regularly, that’s an ADA lawsuit waiting to happen — and more practically, inaccessible PDFs can mean angry customers and lost business. Follow these tips to avoid a few of the most common mistakes.

1. Understand the limits of automatic PDF accessibility tools

If software could automatically convert PDFs into perfectly accessible PDFs, the internet would be a better place (and this would be a very short article).

Accessibility tools can check for common issues such as missing tags (more about tags in a moment). If you’re remediating PDFs for accessibility at scale, that can be absolutely vital. However, automated tools can’t fix issues that require human judgment.

That’s true for website accessibility testers, and it’s certainly true for Acrobat’s accessibility checker. Even if your PDF passes an Acrobat audit, it may miss some WCAG requirements. For example, you must provide descriptive text alternatives for images and other non-text content. Acrobat can tell you whether an image has an alt text tag, but can’t determine whether that tag accurately describes the image.

You can still use automated tools to test for WCAG conformance, and by doing so, you’ll be able to fix many of the most common tagging issues. Just remember to prioritize real-life users — and review the output carefully.

Related: What’s the Difference Between Manual and Automated Accessibility Testing?

2. Understand how tags structure your document

PDF tagging conveys important information about the structure of your document to screen readers and other assistive technologies. Without tags, those tools can’t work. Your document might appear out-of-order, and users will have trouble navigating. 

Get into the habit of keeping the Tags panel open when authoring PDFs. You can enable the panel by navigating to View, Show/Hide, Navigation Panes, and finally to Tags.

For additional guidance, read: How to Avoid 3 Common PDF Tagging Mistakes

3. Pay close attention to form fields

Many organizations use PDFs to collect information from users. It’s best to avoid this practice: Native HTML is a much better tool for creating forms. 

If you must use PDF forms, test every form field. Include text in the Tooltip field to describe the purpose of the form control to assistive technology users. WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) provides a quick guide for ensuring that PDF forms are accessible for screen readers

4. Be careful when using “Print as PDF" features

“Printing" another type of document as a PDF will often remove structural tags — or worse yet, render the document as an image of text, depending on how the print function is carried out.

In other words, if the original document had accessibility features, those might be lost. That’s not the case if you use the original program (such as Word, PowerPoint, or InDesign) to export the document as a PDF.

Build an accessible PDF authoring practice

In this article, we’ve addressed some of the common issues that prevent PDFs from being accessible. For a step-by-step guide to PDF accessibility, read: How To Make a PDF Accessible and ADA Compliant (AudioEye)

For help with specific PDF accessibility issues, send us a message to connect with an expert or read about AudioEye’s document and PDF accessibility remediation services. 

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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