The PDF format is wonderful in that it allows us to create documents that are beautiful to look at. They often reflect our corporate image, or are designed to impress, sell, or share information. When layout is critical to the presentation of data, we tend to consider the use of PDF. A PDF is an end product of a lot of other work. From content creation, through to page layout and graphic design, is the end of means.


Because PDFs are rendered from other source files, like Microsoft Office, InDesign, or OpenOffice files, the work to make them accessible should in fact start with the source document. Typically, this doesn't happen though -- because building well-structured accessible documents takes extra time, effort, and knowledge, which often isn't available via the resources creating the original documents.

So, what makes a PDF accessible? There are many things to consider when creating an accessible PDF. Nine of the most important items are:

  1. Correct tagging: If you are using MS Word, when you convert your document to PDF, tags should be automatically generated. What is tagging? PDF Tagging defines the structure of your document. it contains the instructions that described the logic of your document -- reading order for example, and the meaning of significant elements like figures, lists, and tables. While convering from MS Word to PDF will generate tags, the likelihod that a resulting PDF will have great results is remote, and definitely will not meet Section 508 compliance.

  2. Reading order: The flow of your content must be logical and easy for people to follow. This includes the placement of footnotes and other elements. Reading order is accomplished when your document tag structures reflects the visual layout of the document. Tools like JAWS will read the document content in the order that the tag structure define. A bad tag structure will lead to an incorrect reading order, and will result in a frustrating experience for the end user.

  3. Image descriptions: Images are a great way to convey useful information. However, for the visually impair, the use of images may missed information. So, for each image, you must have alternative text (ALT text), that describes the image and the information that it conveys. When selecting informative images, it is wise to think about how you will describe the information in that image. Note that decorative images should not have ALT text. See the next point.

  4. Remove decorative images from the reading order: An automatic conversion of a document to PDF may result in images being added to the reading order that should not in fact be included. For example, images in your header and footers, and any other decorative images should be removed from the reading order. This way, assistive technologies like JAWS will ignore these elements.

  5. Use of logically structured elements: Basically, your document should include elements like headings, a table of contents, links, bookmarks, and other structural elements that provide context to your content.

  6. Friendly text layouts: Ultimately, you want your document easily read by people. A layout like Wired Magazine (sorry guys), is not going to be easily read by people with visual impairments or reading disabilities like dyslexia. On top of that, your tagging markup will be a nightmare to implement. It can be done, we have done it for clients, but seriously, the simplier your layout, the more accessible your PDF will be.

  7. Define the natural language of the document: You need to ensure your document specifies the correct language of the document. Screen readers use this information to determine the correct pronunciation during speech output. When the wrong language is specified, the user may not understand document content. In addition, if your document contains texts in multiple languages, you must mark up your document to include indicates of in-line language changes. This will make sure that screen readers will read and pronounce words correct and Braille translation software will render the correct text (such as accented characters).

  8. Color contrast: For those with visual impairments, sufficient color constrast is vital to ensure readability. It may be artistically thrilling to have dark green text on a light greenback ground, or pale yellow on a white background, or the 3D effect of blue text on a vibrant red background, for anyone -- let alone those with visual impairments -- this is a big no-no. Use proper color contrast to make your text readable.

  9. Document security settings must not prevent the use of assistive technologies: Once you've created your PDF document, be sure you don't apply any document settings that prevent your readers from accessing the content. Newer versions of Acrobat® are better able to separate security from assistive technology access, though it is still possible to select security options that exclude users with disabilities. This unwanted side effect, however, is now clearly documented in security settings dialogs, so it shouldn't be a problem unless you are using older versions of Adobe Acrobat.

You can create your own accessible PDF documents. It takes time and effort, and must start at the begining of your document creation process. If your organization has a mandate to create accessible PDF documents, or you must be AODA, WCAG and or Section 508 compliant, we invite you to contact us to help.

We can access your existing documents for accessiblity compliances. Our PDF remediation services will ensure that your existing documents can meet accessibility compliance -- even if very few of the nine items above have been adhered to.

Be open. Be accessible. Reach out to us if you need help!