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PDF Accessibility: Understanding the Basics

Mar 22, 2024

The Adobe PDF (Portable Document Format) is one of the most popular formats for online documents. Put simply, if you need to download a tax form or review a company brochure, you’ll probably download a PDF to do so.

Unfortunately, many PDFs aren’t accessible for users with disabilities. A 2023 report from the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that only 20% of the government’s most-downloaded PDFs were conformant with federal accessibility standards. Private businesses also struggle to meet basic accessibility requirements.

The good news: If you think about accessibility when authoring your documents, you can provide a better experience for readers. Here’s how to get started.

Why is PDF accessibility important?

As we’ve discussed on this blog, accessibility isn’t optional, but it’s quite beneficial. The best practices of digital accessibility can enhance search engine optimization (SEO) efforts, improve key eCommerce metrics, and give your customers a better impression of your business.

Of course, you also have a legal responsibility to accommodate users with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws require all digital communications to be accessible — not just websites — and PDFs certainly qualify. 

It’s also worth noting that PDFs often serve essential functions. You might use a PDF to securely collect information from your users; if you’re not paying attention to accessibility, you’re ignoring an estimated 27% of U.S. adults who live with disabilities

You want those people to use your website — and if you’re running a business, you want them as customers. Accessible PDFs can help you reach that audience.

Related: 4 Rules for Making Web Documents More Accessible

What is an accessible PDF?

The goal of digital accessibility is to make electronic content useful for as many people as possible. That includes people with conditions that affect their vision, hearing, mobility, and cognition. 

PDF accessibility addresses the wide range of barriers that might impact your audience. Accessible PDF authoring practices include:

  • Including tags to indicate the document’s language.
  • Providing text alternatives for graphs, images, and other visual content.  
  • Using appropriate color contrast. Low-contrast text may be difficult to read, particularly for people with low vision, color vision deficiency (CVD), and other vision disabilities. 
  • Including document structure tags, which can be useful for people who use screen readers and other assistive technology. 
  • Including headings, lists, hyperlinks, and other elements that help people navigate and understand the document. 

This isn’t a complete list. To truly improve accessibility, you’ll need to think about your entire audience when building your PDFs — just as you’d think about all of your users when building an inclusive website. 

Related: 6 Common PDF Accessibility Mistakes

How can I build accessible PDFs?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s more good news: There are clear accessibility standards for PDFs and other web-delivered documents.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the international standards for digital accessibility. While the guidelines are typically used to test websites and mobile apps, most WCAG requirements can be applied to PDFs.

Essentially, WCAG requires that PDFs are machine-readable — they don’t rely solely on vision or other sensory perception — and that they’re navigable with assistive technologies. WCAG sets clear requirements for color, contrast, interactive elements (such as form fields), and document structure.

To get started, you can review the latest version of WCAG along with the four principles of accessibility. Some basic tips for building accessible authoring practices: 

For additional guidance, read: 7 Basic Steps to Making PDFs More Accessible.

Work with an accessibility partner for at-scale PDF remediation

If you simply need to create a single accessible PDF, you can review Adobe’s guidelines and our guide for avoiding common PDF tagging mistakes. By using a thoughtful approach, you can build content that follows WCAG and works well for most readers.

However, we recommend working with an accessibility partner for large-scale PDF remediation projects. Experienced accessibility experts can help you develop a long-term digital compliance strategy — and modernize large libraries of inaccessible PDFs by using the current best practices.

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility and AudioEye can help you take the next steps. To discuss your project with a member of our team, send us a message.

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

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