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Feature image PDF Accessibility 101

Note: Please contact UserWay if you need to make your PDFs accessible.

PDFs are everywhere on the web, particularly on business, academic, and governmental websites. Unfortunately, when a website has PDFs, the accessibility of that site is typically diminished.

While PDFs present the same accessibility concerns as web pages, they also bring the added complexity of requiring users to view them in a browser or download them. If users choose to download the PDF, they need to view it in software like Adobe Reader or Acrobat.

Online PDFs can create a negative user experience for everyone on the web. They are slower to load and more cumbersome to navigate than webpages are when you view them within a browser. Not only that, but PDFs can also interfere with an in-site search and hinder search engine optimization (SEO) efforts as well.

The 99.9% solution

Although it probably seemed like a good idea at the time, making PDFs viewable within web browsers dealt a considerable blow to web accessibility. Instead of web content being developed primarily for the internet, many users now opt to create their content using their favorite word processing software. They then generate a PDF and post it online.

The vast majority of PDFs that currently reside on websites should be web pages instead. The only time it’s truly appropriate to post a PDF is when you are providing your end-users with a document that they need to print and where formatting must be preserved. For example, if you were supplying users with heavily designed flyers, brochures, or posters that they needed to print and distribute as hard copies, then a PDF would be appropriate.

That and a few other rare situations aside, PDFs should either be converted to web pages or never created in the first place. To address this problem, you should first ask yourself if the document could be a webpage instead.

Universal accessibility concerns

If it’s necessary to use a PDF, that PDF can be made relatively accessible. Be warned, the process is complex and requires Adobe Acrobat Pro software.

PDFs require the same accessibility considerations as other web content, including:

  • Ensure the contrast ratios are right
  • Make the font legible and the size readable
  • Don’t rely on color changes alone to identify or differentiate important information
  • Include descriptive link text

Adding structure

Text within a PDF has no structure natively. Users who rely on screen readers can usually access the text, but it will just read as a single continuous stream. Headings won’t be differentiated from body text, table cells won’t be identified as such, lists will read as one string of words, and so on.

There are tags that can be added to PDFs to provide semantic structure similar to HTML elements like <h1>, <p>, <ul>, <li>. There are three different methods for adding these tags.


Method 1 – In Word Processing Software

First, it’s best to use any semantic “tag” features in the source software because those tags will then carry over to a PDF generated from that software. For example, if you use the heading styles in Microsoft Word (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.), that text will be tagged as headings when a PDF is created from the Word document. The heading styles in Word can be edited to have any visual attributes you select.

It’s wise to make as many accessibility enhancements as possible in the source software because they will not need to be redone whenever the document is revised. If all accessibility work is left to be done in the PDF once generated, it will need to be redone entirely every time the document is revised, and a new PDF is created.

Method 2 – Automatic in Adobe Acrobat Pro

Once a PDF is generated, Adobe Acrobat Pro offers some automated tools that can attempt to add tags to the PDF automatically. Often, the results are less than perfect but can nonetheless get you closer to your goal faster than manually tagging the entire document.

Method 3 – Manual in Adobe Acrobat Pro

Regardless of how well the first two methods perform in tagging the document, there is almost always a need to clean up and fill in missing tags using Acrobat Pro.

Tag work in Acrobat Pro is done using the Tags panel, usually found somewhere from the View menu, depending on the version of Acrobat Pro. Using the tools within the Tags panel, you can polish the structural tags within any PDF.

The Accessibility panel also offers helpful tools and can usually be found in the Options menu, depending on the version of Acrobat Pro. Here you will find tools for adding or editing alternative text for non-text content (if none was added in the source software), checking reading order, enhancements for form fields, and accessibility scanning tools that can alert you to problems that have been overlooked.

Creating PDFs

There are multiple methods for creating PDFs, but you have to be careful because some work much better than others in preserving accessibility enhancements. The most reliable method is to install Adobe Acrobat Pro and its plug-ins for Microsoft Office (assuming that is the source software).

The PDF Maker plug-in is typically your best bet. Before generating a PDF, spend some time exploring its options. Depending on the version of Acrobat Pro, the accessibility options might be named slightly differently or be located in different places.

Two options to look for and enable are:

  1. enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF, and
  2. document structure tags for accessibility.

Usually, you will only have to enable these options once, and they will remain active after that.

The least desirable method for generating PDFs is the Print to PDF option from any software. Any accessibility enhancements made within the source file will be lost if this method is used.

Make sure your PDFs are accessible or turn them into webpages if you can. Your users will thank you!