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How to Create an Accessible PDF in Adobe Acrobat

Jun 26, 2017

The Portable Document Format (PDF) has become one of the most popular file types on the web. PDFs were developed by Adobe Systems with one underlying goal in mind: to create a document format that can be opened and displayed the same on any device or operating system.

Although PDFs are all about making documents as accessible as possible, many users forget to consider the visually-impaired browsing experience. Studies show that as many as 20% of internet users have some form of visual impairment, and one in three adults experience a visual disability as they age. Failing to make your documents accessible on the web means losing out on a large segment of your end market. It therefore pays to consider accessibility when creating any document for online viewing.

An accessible PDF provides the functionality that allows visually impaired users to comprehend and navigate content quickly and easily. Characteristics of accessible PDFs include searchable text, fonts that allow characters to be extracted to text, and interactive labeled form fields.

Below is a step-by-step guide for creating and verifying accessible PDFs for users with visual or cognitive disabilities. Note that many of these features require Acrobat Pro, which is the premium version of Adobe’s PDF viewer.

  1. Consider accessibility first Since PDF documents are converted from other file types, such as Microsoft Word documents, it’s important to consider accessibility when you create the source file. This includes adding alternative text to graphics, optimizing tables, and applying specific paragraph styles that can be converted to tags. 
  2. Use ‘Make Accessible’ feature Creating an accessible PDF is as easy as using the Make Accessible tool in Adobe Acrobat. This feature walks you through the steps needed to make your PDF accessible, addressing any potential accessibility issues. It can be accessed via Tools > Action Wizard > Make Accessible.
  3. Add form fields If your document includes form fields (i.e., a form that allows users to enter data in the web browser), use the following command Tools > Accessibility > Run Form Field Recognition.This feature allows you to create fillable form fields, such as check boxes and text boxes. When you create a field, include a description in the Tool tip box, which appears in the Properties dialog for that field. For more information on how to create form fields, refer to Adobe's Form Field Basics.
  4. Add other accessibility features After adding form fields, it’s important to set other accessibility features in the PDF. This includes setting the document language, ensuring the security features don’t interfere with screen readers, and creating accessible links.

To set the language automatically, select Primary Language in the Accessibility Checker tab. From the Options menu, select Fix. This will allow you to choose a language from the Set Reading Language dialogue box.

To prevent security settings from interfering with screen readers, navigate to Accessibility Permission Flag > Accessibility Checker. From the Options menu, select Fix.

To add accessible links, URLs must be accessible to screen readers. The best way to do this is through the Create Link command, which adds all the links that screen readers rely on.

  1. Tag the PDF Adding tags in Acrobat can greatly enhance the accessibility of your PDF file. When a PDF is tagged, the logical structure tree sends the content to a screen reader in the right order. This is best achieved by tagging a document when converting it to PDF from its initial application, such as Word.

To tag a PDF in Acrobat, select Tools > Accessibility > Add Tags to Document.

Check and fix accessibility issues

To check the accessibility of your document, click Tools > Accessibility > Full Check. Select one or more of the Checking Options and then click Start Checking from the Accessibility Checker panel. This report gives you the following status for each rule check:

  • Passed
  • Skipped by user
  • Needs manual check
  • Failed

To fix a failed check, right-click the item in the Accessibility Checker panel. This will give you one of several options, including fixing the item automatically or manually.

Accessibility is an essential feature of any well-functioning web page or document. By using Acrobat Adobe Pro, you have all the features you need to create accessible PDF documents that your visually impaired audience will appreciate.

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

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