Tips to make PDFs accessible on your website

Mar 11, 2020
Tips to make PDFs accessible

The era of accessible websites has come. More and more website owners understand why website accessibility is important for business. One of the website assets that is often neglected in terms of accessibility is PDF documents. However, there may be hundreds of them on a website. In this post, we review tips to make PDFs accessible on your website.

What is an accessible PDF file?

Not all PDFs are created equal. So what is the difference between ordinary PDFs and accessible PDFs? A file in the Portable Document Format (PDF) is accessible when it meets specific technical criteria that make it easy for people with disabilities to use and navigate through. It supports various assistive technology software like screen readers, text-to-speech software, speech recognition software, alternative input devices, Braille embossers, and more.

This is achieved through using ALT text, accessibility tags, hyperlinks, bookmarks, consistent navigation, identification of elements, and so on.

The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life — and websites are no exception. PDF accessibility is officially supported by several web standards: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, PDF/UA (Universal Access, or ISO 14289), and Section 508.

Why do PDFs often have accessibility problems?

So what prevents authors from creating ADA compliant PDFs? The root of the trouble is that many PDF authors do not even ask themselves the question “Are PDFs accessible to screen readers?” Accessibility is often associated with the web pages of the site, not PDF documents, which is a big mistake.

Another huge, and this time purely technical, problem is that PDFs are often made from scanned documents where the text is represented graphically and is not extractable by screen readers. This makes them inherently inaccessible.

How do I make a PDF accessible?

That said, customers often ask questions like “How to make a PDF 508 compliant?” or “How to make a PDF ADA compliant?” Here are some tips for making accessible PDFs that fulfil some of the most prominent requirements. Their implementation is possible through various PDF authoring tools.

Add PDF tags

No PDF can be considered accessible unless you add these tags. PDF tags provide a structured representation of the content so that screen readers can interpret that. They define the document’s headings, paragraphs, sections, tables, etc. They are similar to HTML tags. PDF tags are the key to many of the other tips.

Provide the right reading order

You need to make sure users can navigate through the PDF content in a logical order that is in line with the document’s key ideas.

Use real text

If the text is just a graphical representation, users cannot search through it or otherwise manipulate it. So if your text has been made from a scanned document, it’s essential to convert it to actual text by using optical character recognition (OCR).

Provide ALT text for graphics

All images, charts, and other graphics in your document should have an ALT text users who rely on screen readers understand their meaning.

Use bookmarks

If the PDF has more than 9 pages, it is recommended that you add bookmarks in order to provide better navigation since they help users locate content.

Using bookmarks to make PDF accessible

Add link descriptions

Make sure your hyperlinks have descriptive labels on them, making it easy for a user to understand what they will get when they click on the link.

Specify the language

Specifying the language of the document, or a particular part, will help screen readers switch to the necessary language with the correct pronunciation.

Specifying the language to make PDF accessible

Specify the PDF title

By providing the document title, you will help your users quickly find the document on their computer and identify it.

Provide definitions for abbreviations

Give an expansion or definition of an abbreviation on its first occurrence in the document. For example, "WCAG" should be expanded to "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines."

Specify consistent page numbering

Make sure the page numbering displayed in the PDF viewer matches that of the page numbers in the document.

Hide decorative images

If your document has purely decorative images, you can mark them with an Artifact tag so screen readers can ignore them.

Use sufficient color contrast

Use color combinations in your PDF that provide a sufficient degree of contrast for users with visual impairments.

Provide form controls

Use correct tab order, field labels, informative error messages, and more to help users interact with forms in your PDF document.

How to remediate, or make an existing PDF accessible?

It’s always better to make accessible PDFs from the start. You can also remediate them retroctively although it will be more or less cumbersome depending on the original document with its elements.

Authoring software like Adobe Acrobat Pro provides accessibility features:

  • Make Accessible. This feature gives helpful hints as to the needed steps to make your PDF accessible. It is found at Tools — Action Wizard — Make Accessible.
  • Full Check. This action checks the document meets the accessibility standards. It is found at Tools — Accessibility — Full Check. You can also get your Accessibility Report after the check.
PDF accessibility check in Adobe Acrobat Pro

Here are also a few examples of where to address particular accessibility issues in Adobe Acrobat Pro:

  • Adding ALT text to images is at Select Tools — Accessibility — Set Alternate Text.
  • Adding tags to define the heading structure is at Select Tools — Accessibility — Add Tags.
  • Converting images with text to actual text is at Select Tools — Text Recognition — In This File.
  • Setting the reading order is at Select Tools — Accessibility — Touch Up Reading Order.
  • Setting the document language is at Select File — Properties — Advanced — Reading Options.

How do you test if a PDF is accessible?

To test whether your PDF is accessible or not, you can try the Full Check feature in the Adobe Acrobat Pro (Tools — Accessibility — Full Check). Get your handy Accessibility Report in the end.

Let us help you make your PDFs accessible!

Never miss a chance to improve your website’s accessibility and create ADA PDF compliance. Our website support and development team will help you with creating accessible PDFs or making your existing documents accessible.

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