Creating Accessible PDFs

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Summary: You'll need an application like Adobe Acrobat Pro to create fully accessible PDFs, by using the built-in accessibility checker. Scanned documents are not accessible until you convert them for optical character recognition (which Acrobat also can do for you).


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PDFs created from a MS Word doc or Google docs

Most people create PDFs from a word processing application like Miscrosoft Word or Google Docs. You create a document in either Word or Docs then "save-as" or "export to" a PDF file. The good news is that if you create PDFs this way, simply make your Word and Doc documents accessible and the accessibility traits will carry-over into the PDF format. Use the six core skills to accessify your documents.

PDFs created from a scan

If you scan a document (using a flatbed scanner or photocopier), the resulting document is simply a picture of the original. Pictures are not inherently accessible because computers can't read the information contained in them.

You'll need to convert the picture for optical character recognition in order to make it accessible. Optical character recognition just means that the computer will be able to read the text contained in your scan. You'll need Adobe Acrobat Pro to perform this conversion. Acrobat Pro is free for U of M (see link in Related Articles). Then, you'll need to to run Acrobat's built-in accessibility checker. We recommend you follow WebAIM's guide to creating accessible PDFs to learn how.

This short video gives an overview of how to create accessible PDFs using Acrobat.

PDFs created from Adobe InDesign

PDF files can also be created using Adobe InDesign - a desktop publishing application.  For guidance on using Adobe InDesign to create accessible PDF files, please visit Creating accessible PDF documents with Adobe® InDesign® CS6.

Characteristics of accessible PDFs

An accessible PDF has:

  • searchable text (recognizable by the computer)
  • interactive form fields (i.e., a user can enter information into the fields, where the tab key lets the user move logically through the form)
  • navigational aids (bookmarks, headings, table of contents, and logical tab order for form fields)
  • specified document language (specify the language to enable people who use screen readers to switch their speech synthesizer to the target language so they'll hear correct pronunciation of the content)
  • title (helps users find the document on their computer)
  • document structure tags (which headings, paragraphs, sections, tables and other page elements; also allows documents to be resized and reflowed for viewing at larger sizes and on mobile devices)
  • logical reading order (governed by the document structure tags)
  • alternative text for non-text elements
  • appropriately formatted tables

The accessibility checker that Acrobat runs will help you make a more accessible document. It helps you find inaccessible parts of the document, but then you need to fix the issues manually.

Document Tags

You will need to use Adobe Acrobat to create tags in your documents after you convert them from the word format (MS Word, Google Docs) to PDF. Acrobat's accessibility wizard adds tags in just a few clicks. From there, you just need to make sure the tags were inserted in the appropriate order and hierarchy.

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