PDFs are more and more becoming the standard document structure used to disseminate documents.  In the creation of PDFs, it is important to consider accessibility.

How to go about creating accessible PDFs will depend on where you are starting: with a finished PDF you want to make accessible, if you have access to a document you want to convert to PDF, or if you are scanning and converting to PDF. Each process is more involved that I’ll write about here, plenty of information is available online on creating documents accessibly in each of these instances.

While not as common today, many PDFs still exist that are just scanned images of text, not actual text.  These documents are inaccessible from the start.  If you scan documents to make PDFs, or want to work on the quality of your documents, you should educate yourself on the benefits of OCR (optical character recognition) software. In Disability Access Services, we use ABBYY Fine Reader, but many different versions of OCR software exist – some might even be bundled with your scanner.

Here are a few really good resources about accessible PDF creation:
WebAIM PDF Accessibility
Adobe Accessibility

I really like the “Creating Accessible PDF Files from Word” document on the following page, as many of us convert to PDF from Word:
Adobe Accessibility Best Practices

Some of the basics to consider are:

  • Does the document use proper tagging and structure in the PDF format
  • If color is used, does it have proper contrast
  • If color is used, make sure the important content isn’t reliant on color (i.e. “important information is in red”)
  • Do images have proper Alt Text (you can check this using the “Touch Up Object Tool” in Acrobat Pro 9 or 10)
  • Do links within the document make sense out of context – are they descriptive
  • Are fonts at least readable for most people upon opening the document – are they 12pt or greater
  • Does the document have proper layout and reading order (check using the “Touch Up Reading Order Tool” in Acrobat Pro 9 or 10)
  • If the document is long, is there built in navigation (like a table of contents), is the structure tagged using headings to assist in this navigation
  • If there are forms in the document, are they coded properly
  • Are tables created in the most linear fashion possible – are tables coded properly
  • Is the language of the document set (so the screen reader software knows what language to speak)

Note that this is a fairly through, but not complete list.  Human evaluation is always the most important tool you have. You’ll need to education yourself and evaluate the document to determine if it is accessible. While Acrobat Pro now has a built in accessibility checker, and it helps quite a lot, no software exists that can replace a person actually checking a document and all of the intricacies we build into them.

If you don’t have Acrobat Pro 9 (or X) you’ll need it at a minimum to do a lot of the fixes I’ve listed above once the document is in PDF.  You can, and should, do this work in your original document if you own it, as it’s always better to build in accessibility from the beginning.

While most of you don’t have access to the most common screen reader software on the market, Adobe actually has built in screen reader software into Adobe Reader and Acrobat Pro!  One of the best things you can do to make sure your PDF document is accessible is to listen to it.  Activate this feature by going to View > Read Out Loud > Activate Read Out Loud.  Then use the controls and listen away.

To learn more, watch a webinar on accessible communication through IT that I gave recently, with an emphasis on document creation.


2 thoughts on “Are your PDFs accessible?

  1. Quote from discussion above: “I really like the “Creating Accessible PDF Files from Word” document on the following page, as many of us convert to PDF from Word:
    Adobe Accessibility Best Practices”

    I am unable to find a document named “Creating Accessible PDF Files from Word.” Can I have more guidance?

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