We all have PDFs on our websites to provide information, to collect information or as archived documents. It is estimated that one in five people claim at least one form of disability. As an institution of higher education, it is highly important to ensure that not only our sites are accessible but that our PDFs are accessible as well. Here are some frequently asked questions about PDF accessibility to help you in making your PDFs accessible.

What is the difference between ‘technically (or text-based) accessible’ and ‘fully accessible’, what one do I need to work toward and why?

When a PDF is made, it is usually saved as a basic, image-based PDF. This information is not accessible to people with print-related disabilities.

You can make your PDF partially accessible, or ‘text-based accessible’, which will only make the text readable with use of adaptive technology.

In order for your PDF to be completely accessible it must contain tags and structure. Your PDF must also support access by sound and include information on charts and graphs.

Adobe lines out several criteria required to make a PDF fully accessible. These items include:

  • searchable text
  • fonts that allow characters to be extracted to text
  • interactive labeled form fields with accessible error messages and no timing
  • hyperlinks and navigational aids
  • document language and title indication
  • security that will not interfere with assistive technology
  • document structure tags and proper reading order
  • alternative text descriptions for no-text elements

Their accessibility website, Adobe.com/accessibility, has a complete overview of these items and more.

How do I check my PDFs to see if they are accessible?

A quick and easy way to test your PDFs to see if they are accessible through use of a screen reader. The University of Arkansas’ Center for Educational Access recommends using NVDA free screen reader.

Once you have downloaded NVDA, run your PDF through the program and turn off your screen. If information in the PDF is missing in the screen reader (not read out loud or read out of sequence, you know your PDF is not fully accessible.

How do I make old and new PDFs accessible?

Taggedpdf.com has a great presentation on the best tools for making PDFs accessible on the front end as well as checking current PDFs for accessibility. These include:

  • Step 1: Adobe Acrobat Pro Version 10 (or higher) – This allows you to touch up the reading order of your document and apply accessibility tags. Begin with the Accessibility Full Check to your document (don’t rely on this for full compliance but instead use an accessibility checker. Next, you will want to use the Edit Accessibility Tags option. This is located in the left navigation. Click on the tags menu and view and edit the accessibility tags that make up the logical structure of the doc (this is the info that is used for PDF readers. Order of tags defines how the content is presented and type of tag defines how the content is presented such as the heading, paragraph and list. Always work with a copy of the PDF because it is easy to mess up your work and you can’t go back.
  • Step 2: PAC 2 – PDF Accessibility Checker 2 – This program will run all checks that can be automated for PDF UA (Universal Accessibility) which is equal to 508 Compliance that can be automated.  Once it is finished, a green check mark will appear letting you know that “This PDF is technically accessible”. You will have to do a manual check to make the document fully accessible. To do so, open the ‘Screen Reader Preview’. This displays the doc in the way that it will be presented through PDF reader. Manually check and make sure the reading order is correct and make sure all of the tags are in the appropriate place.
  • Step 3: Matterhorn Protocol – PDF Associations PDF UA Compliance Center – This is a technical document that provides criteria for PDF UA. The document contains 137 failure condition descriptions in which 47 require human inspection and judgement.

How do I go about making my current PDFs accessible in a timely manner?

A solid remediation plan is key. Siteimprove suggests some great tips for doing this including assess your current PDF listing and order them by use or importance. Start with the most important ones and work your way down the list. You can also make PDFs accessible on a need be basis.

A great tool for creating accessible PDFs is MS Word by building in items like headings and alt tags on graphics. You can then save the Word document as a PDF and Microsoft word can add accessibility to both documents. In order for this to work, it is important to refrain from using font bold/italic/underline or size and instead set these items as headings with the use of Heading Styles. Microsoft has a great article on guidance for creating accessible Word documents.

And, finally, moving forward, make all of your PDFs fully accessible.