What makes a PDF file accessible?

Rodrigo Asai
Rodrigo Asai
  • Updated

The same accessibility laws that are applied to the web, also apply to PDFs. Any website that links to PDFs, is required to make sure that the 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, it is by default loaded in the browser itself. However, most web browsers lack the ability to expose the semantics of PDFs to the screen reader making it unusable to the end-user. The PDF first needs to be downloaded and opened locally in Adobe Acrobat Reader which allows for 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 a PDF, so it is Accessible?

The process of formatting a PDF to be accessible is not an easy one. First and foremost, you need to use Adobe Acrobat Pro which offers auto-tagging, but even the auto-tagging is lacking proper formatting of the PDF. To ensure that your PDFs are completely accessible and compliant, the process must be done manually, and the process is quite tedious and includes tagging such things as:

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