Creating accessible Adobe PDF documents

Estimated read time: 6 minutes 25 seconds

PDF documents are unique because you can create them in different ways. This can impact their accessibility.

If you're converting a Word document to PDF format, make sure your original document is accessible before you convert it. Starting with an accessible Word document does not necessarily mean your PDF will be accessible. It's important to follow the steps in this guide to ensure your PDF document is accessible after you've converted your original.

Who does this affect?

  • Hasan does not own a computer and is using his phone to read important information on a government service. The information is only available in PDF. He cannot read it on his phone because it isn’t mobile friendly, and so the text doesn’t resize.
  • Uta is an auditory learner. The government has released a new report on climate change that she is listening to using a screen reader. The report has not been designed for accessibility, so the content is being read to her in the wrong order.
  • Vanda is blind and needs to fill in an application form using a screen reader. The form is only available online as a scanned PDF. As there is no alternative version, Vanda has to ask a friend for help. 

PDFs and the web

Publishing content on a web page rather than in a PDF should be the default format for all government information. If there is a strong user need for a PDF, such as printing, the document must be made as accessible as possible. All PDF documents posted to the web should also be available in HTML format.

Downloading files over 1MB can be difficult in rural areas across the province. PDFs posted to the web should be setup with the lowest files size possible (without distorting the content).

PDFs and mobile devices

PDFs are difficult to access on smaller screens as they don’t resize and reformat to fit the screen. On mobile devices such as tablets or phones PDFs do not comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

PDFs and public servants

For professional design advice, please contact your GCPE Communications Shop for help.

Steps to take

  1. Run the Accessibility Checker
  2. Set the document language
  3. Tag your PDF
  4. Create bookmarks
  5. Use headings and lists
  6. Make your graphics and images accessible
  7. Check your colour contrast
  8. Check the logical reading order
  9. Create navigation links
  10. Using tables

Run the Accessibility Checker

To run the accessibility checker on your PDF you need to be using Acrobat Pro.

  1. Open your PDF and go to View>Tools>Accessibility>Open
  2. The Accessibility Checker will open in the task pane
  3. Select “Full Check”
  4. After the check has run, the results will appear in the Accessibility Checker panel
  5. There will always be at least 2 issues identified by the Checker. ‘Colour Contrast’ and ‘Logical Reading Order’. That is because these issues need a human to review them

Resource: Using the Accessibility Checker (YouTube tutorial)

Set the document language

The document language helps screen readers know what language they are reading in. Set the language by:

  1. Selecting File>Properties
  2. Select the tab the ‘Advanced’ tab
  3. Under ‘Reading Options’ choose English from the Language drop-down list

Tag your PDF

Tags provide a logical structure that governs how the content is presented through assistive technology.  

To create tags in your PDF:

  1. Open the ‘Order’ tab in the Accessibility Checker
  2. Then open Options > Reading Order Panel
  3. Open Single Page View from the top navigation to help you be more accurate in your tagging: View > Page Display > Single Page View
  4. Open ‘Zoom to Page Level’ from the top navigation: Zoom > Zoom to Page View > Zoom to Page Level
  5. Highlight text by double clicking on text or drawing a rectangle around it with your mouse. Once it is highlighted, select the appropriate tag from the Reading Order Panel (Heading 1 for the title of the document, text/paragraph for each paragraph, Heading 2 for each section title, Heading 3 for sub-titles, Figure for graphs and images, etc)
  6. If you have any decorative content, tag these as ‘Background/Artifact’
  7. Repeat this process on each page of your document

Resource:  Tagging your PDF (YouTube tutorial)

Create bookmarks

A bookmark is a type of link that goes to a specific place or page in your document. If your document is longer than 21 pages, it must have bookmarks to pass the accessibility checker. To create bookmarks:

  1. Open the ‘Bookmarks’ tab in the Accessibility Checker panel
  2. Open the page where you want the bookmark to link to
  3. Highlight the area of the page you want to bookmark. The selected text becomes the label of the new bookmark. You can edit the label
  4. To bookmark an image, click on the image or drag a rectangle around it
  5. New bookmarks are automatically added to the end of the bookmark list. You need to drag and drop your bookmarks into the correct order
  6. Sub-headings can be nested under bookmarks by indenting them in the list

Resource: Creating Bookmarks (YouTube tutorial)

Use headings and lists

People and assistive technologies scan written content looking for headings. Headings let you know if the information is relevant to you.

  • Give your document a title using the ‘Title’ tag at the start of your document
  • Break content into manageable chunks with ‘Heading 1’ (H1)
  • Create sub-headings using ‘Heading 2’ (H2)
  • Sub-sub headings should be ‘Heading 3’ (H3)
  • Keep headings short, try to use keywords
  • Use sentence case for headings (start with a capital letter, the rest should be lower case)
  • Use bullet point lists to make content easier to scan. Only use numbered lists to show ordered steps

Watch Microsoft’s video on improving heading accessibility.

Using images

Visual content includes graphics, images, pictures, SmartArt, shapes, groups, charts, embedded objects, ink and videos.

Alternative text (alt-text) helps people who can’t see the visual content understand the context of the image. When writing alt-text, think how you would describe the image to someone over the phone.

To create alt-text:

  1. Right click on the image
  2. Select ‘Edit Alt-Text’
  3. Write a short description of the image (5 to 10 words)

If the image you are using is decorative and does not convey any additional information, select the ‘Mark as decorative’ check box.

To find all instances of missing alt-text use the Accessibility Checker.

Check the logical reading order

The Accessibility Checker will flag ‘Logical Reading Order’ when you run it. That is because it needs a human to review the order to make sure it is logical. The tagged order should follow the same flow that a sighted person would experience. In most cases this means, left to right, top to bottom.

To check the logical reading order:

  1. Open the ‘Tags’ tab in the Accessibility Checker
  2. Select the first tag, this should be the title of your document. There should only be one Title per document. When you select the tag, a rectangle will appear around the content that it represents in the document
  3. Use the ‘down arrow’ button to move to the next tag. This should move the rectangle to the next content you would logically read on the page, for example: the first paragraph
  4. If the rectangle skips content, you may need to create a tag or reorder them
  5. To create a new tag: Highlight the text or image that you want to tag. Select ‘Create Tag from Selection’ from the options menu. Select the ‘Type’ of content it is (for example: paragraph, link, etc)
  6. To reorder: In the ‘Tags panel’ on the left side of your screen, drag and drop the tags into the correct order
  7. If the rectangle lands on a decorative item, such as a bar dividing sections, select the item, and then select ‘Change Tag to Artifact…’. Select ‘Page’ from the Artifact menu. Then delete the tag. This will stop a screen reader from reading it out loud to the user.
  8. Once you have updated all the tags so they’re in the correct order. Go back to the beginning of your document and hit the down arrow until you reach the end to ensure they follow the intended flow.

Resource: Using Logical Reading Order (YouTube tutorial)

Create navigation links

Hyperlink keywords that describes where the link goes. For example:

  • Don’t use: Click here to read the traffic report.
  • Instead use: Read the traffic report.

Add ScreenTips that provide a description when your cursor hovers over a hyperlink.

How to: File > Options > General > ScreenTips Style > Show Feature Descriptions in ScreenTips > OK

Watch Microsoft’s video on creating accessible links.

Resource: Creating Navigation Links (YouTube tutorial)

Using tables

Just because a table has been tagged doesn’t meant that it is accessible. Tags need to indicate which cells are headers and which cells are data. To do this you need to check to see how individual cells are tagged:

  1. Open the Reading Order tool
  2. Select the table, and then select Table Editor from the Reading Order tool
  3. Right click on the table to open the Table Editor Options
  4. Check the Show Cell Type checkbox, and then select OK

To add header cells:

  1. Right click on a header cell and select Table Cell Properties
  2. Change the Type from Data Cell to Header Cell
  3. Now you need to identify if the header is a row or a column. Choose one from the Scope dropdown menu

Resource: PDF Accessibility: Tables (YouTube)

Supporting resources