What makes a PDF file accessible?

Rodrigo Asai
Rodrigo Asai
  • Updated

Web accessibility laws also apply to PDFs. Any website that links to PDFs is required to make sure that these PDFs are accessible for screen reader users. But what makes a PDF accessible?

The first thing to understand is that when a PDF is opened via the web browser, most often it is by default loaded in the browser itself. However, most web browsers lack the ability to expose the semantics of PDFs to screen readers, making it inaccessible to a blind or low-vision end-user. The PDF must first be downloaded and opened locally in Adobe Acrobat Reader, which allows the PDF to be accessed by the screen reader.

After the screen reader user goes through the steps above, this is when they finally find out if the PDF they clicked on is properly formatted for accessibility or not. More often than not, the PDF is not properly formatted, making it impossible for a screen reader user to access the information on the PDF.

How do you format an accessible PDF?

For existing PDFs, formatting for accessibility is not an easy process. First and foremost, you need to use Adobe Acrobat Pro, which offers auto-tagging, but auto-tagging lacks proper formatting, and may relay incorrect or incomplete information. To ensure that your PDFs are completely accessible and compliant, the process must be done manually, step by step.

The process includes tagging such things as:

  • Proper Heading Structures
  • Proper Navigation
  • Columns
  • Lists
  • Form Fields
  • Tables
  • Tool Tips
  • Alt Texts and more

How do you set up a document so it saves as an accessible PDF?

To save documents as PDFs, the process may vary depending on the program you are using.

For Word and PowerPoint, UserWay offers an accessibility wizard that can set up individual documents, or document templates, that will correctly format your document for accessibility, and prompt you or your team members to add or edit image alts where needed.