How to make PDFs accessible

What is a PDF, anyway?

PDF stands for portable document format—it’s a file type. After you create a document in an authoring tool first, such as Google Docs, Word, or InDesign, you can then export your document as a PDF.

You may have heard people say that you need Adobe Acrobat Pro to create accessible PDFs. You do need Acrobat Pro (or a comparable tool) to check the accessibility of PDFs, but it’s important to note that Acrobat Pro is not an authoring tool. Acrobat Pro is used to add accessibility and other features to PDF files.

Do you have to use a PDF?

We’ll give it to you straight: making accessible PDFs is tough. If your information can be shared as a web page instead, please do so. Web content is inherently more accessible, and with content management systems such as Open Berkeley, it’s easy to make your web content accessible.

If you must use a PDF…

If you produce PDF documents, there are some important things to be aware of:

  • It’s easier to create an accessible PDF by starting with an accessible source document (if possible).
  • Remediating an existing PDF that isn’t accessible is extremely difficult to learn and time-consuming.
  • The accessibility of PDFs can vary widely; some PDFs are completely unusable for some users. Conversely, a PDF that was designed to be accessible can work well for most users.
  • Even an accessible PDF can present barriers: 
    • Some PDFs don’t allow text to reflow, so low vision and mobile users may have a very hard time reading them. This often happens with PDF forms, or with complex documents containing tables, multiple columns, or complex graphics. (Note: Reflow is when text adapts to screen size so it doesn’t get cut off or require horizontal scrolling.)
    • Browser previews may not function correctly and users may not understand they have to download the document.
    • Large PDFs may be slow to download, too large to email, or use too much data.

What does it mean for a PDF to be accessible?

  • Machine readable text: If you scan in a paper document or “print to PDF”, your PDF will be an image-only file. Screen readers can not read images of text.
  • Tags: The text in a PDF needs to have tags that describe the function and layout. This is what allows PDFs to work with assistive technologies. These tags are similar to html tags and describe paragraphs, lists, headings, and more.
  • Complies with WCAG: The same accessibility features and concepts that are required for websites are required for electronic documents.

Here's an example of PDF tags shown in the Tag Pane in Adobe Acrobat Pro:

PDF tag pane with an Heading selected, which is also highlighted in the document.

Two ways to create an accessible PDF

  • Design your document to be accessible in your authoring tool. Then export it as an accessible PDF. If you have access to Acrobat Pro, use the PDF accessibility checker tool.  --OR--
  • Remediation: This requires you to use Acrobat Pro to add the proper tags to your document manually. This method allows you to fix a document that lacks accessibility, as is often the case with old legacy documents.

A note about authoring tools

  • Word: If you use the correct styles to structure your document and design it to be accessible, you can export a tagged, accessible PDF from Word.
  • Google Docs: Begin with an accessible Google Doc. Do NOT export your Google Doc as a PDF– this strips out all the tags! Instead, export as a Word document and then export it as a PDF from Word. Or, use the paid version of Grackle Docs to export accessible PDFs directly from Google Docs. 
  • InDesign: There are steps you can take to improve the accessibility of a PDF exported from InDesign, but in most cases, some remediation work will still need to be done. 

Document types

  • Important: PDF forms must be remediated to be accessible. Because of the interactivity of form fields, they require that additional tags be added in Acrobat Pro to be accessible. They can not be made accessible in authoring tools at this time. If you can use a webform instead (Qualtrics, Google Forms, etc), that’s always preferable. Another option is to make the static text portion accessible and then use Docusign to add accessible form fields.
  • Simple text-based documents can be designed to be accessible in the authoring program (Google Docs or Word) and exported as accessible PDFs. (In Google Docs, use Word or the paid version of Grackle Docs as an intermediary.)
  • Complex documents, such as reports with multiple columns, images, large tables, and infographics are difficult to make accessible in authoring programs. Professional remediation is recommended.

Prioritizing PDF remediation

There is no better time than now to audit the documents on your web sites. Once you’ve decided which PDFs you must keep as PDFs, focus on fixing the PDFs that create the biggest barriers:

  • PDF forms: These are totally unusable for some users if they aren’t accessible. Because forms are typically a requirement for access to service, they should be a top priority.
  • Critical information
  • Complex documents

Professional remediation services

We are working to provide Berkeley with PDF remediation services. Please check back in Fall 2023 for updates.

  • Crawford Technologies (available soon)
  • Grackle (Google Add-ons and remediation services available soon)

More resources

Learn to remediate PDFs on LinkedIn Learning:

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