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Making Acrobat PDF Files Accessible

Adobe’s 'Portable Document Format' (PDF) is a very popular way of publishing information. PDF allow a faithful representation of a design across many platforms, as well as advanced features such as fillable forms. Properly structured, PDF documents can be made accessible to all site visitors, including those using a screen-reader or other assistive technologies.

Accessible design elements include a document title, a language definition, alternative text for images, and a 'document structure' - meaning that headings are clearly labeled, as well as page elements like tables and lists.

Remediating existing PDFs can be time consuming. Consider if your document needs to be a PDF before it is posted online.

On this page:

Creating New Documents

The easiest way to make sure a PDF is accessible to do so 'upstream'. Most documents are not created as PDFs, but are exported or saved to that format from another program, such as Microsoft Word. In those cases, it is better to use the tools built in to that program to label elements appropriately, then export to PDF. Guides exist for many other programs, such as Microsoft Publisher or Adobe InDesign . For other programs, please contact Web Services for assistance.

Using the 'scan to pdf' feature on a multifunction printer does not produce an accessible document. It essentially takes a photo of the document. To be fully machine-readable, An OCR scan must be performed, which can introduce errors. Avoid using scanned documents whenever possible.

All public-facing content, and most non-public facing content, made available on our websites and social media channels must meet[^1] standards and guidelines outlined in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. These standards were refreshed in January, 2017 to adopt the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 levels A and AA.

Does it Need to be a PDF?

Another option for largely text documents is to create a web page containing the same information. UH Hilo’s Content Managment System makes it easy for non-technical users to create web pages. Web pages are inherently accessible, and every modern browser offers the user the ability to save the page as a PDF. By choosing to only present the information as a PDF, you are denying the visitor the chance to make their own choice about how to consume the information.

Additionally, PDFs are not mobile-friendly, so a large number of potential visitors will find the content troubling to consume. Often the documents open in another app, which can break the 'flow' for the reader. The PDF will not respect the reader's font-size preferences or screen size, and instead deliver the 'one-size-fits-all' document. Web users come to our website on many different platforms, so it is preferable that the content adapt to them. Web pages can do this; PDF's cannot.

Document Creation Guides

UH System has a series of how-to guides covering document creation in many popular programs.

UH Guidelines for creating PDF documents

  • If the document was created the document using a different authoring tool such as Microsoft Word, please use the accessibility features of the program before converting to PDF.
  • When possible, use the Create PDF button from the Acrobat ribbon in Microsoft Word to ensure the resulting document is tagged properly. Never use the Print to PDF option as this results in a PDF that is not accessible.
  • Use the Accessibility Checker built into Adobe Acrobat Pro and fix any issues that it may find.
  • Use the proper tags for each element so that they are identified properly.
  • Check the reading order and make sure all tagged elements are in the intended reading order.
  • Make sure the document’s language is specified.
  • Ensure that the Document Title is specified.
  • Ensure bookmarks parallel the document structure.
  • Use sufficient contrast for text and background colors.
  • Because tabs are often used to navigate a PDF, it’s necessary that the tab order parallels the document structure.
  • Specifying the encoding helps PDF viewers’ present users with readable text.
  • For URLs to be accessible to screen readers, they must be active links that are correctly tagged in the PDF.
  • Ensure all form fields are tagged and are a part of the document structure and ensure that they have proper descriptive text (tool tips).
  • When images are present, use alt text, or descriptive text to describe the image.
  • For tables, make sure they are tagged properly.

Working with Existing PDF Files

Location of 'Full Check' button in Acrobat DC's Accessibility toolbar

To discover issues with an existing PDF, it is necessary to open the document in Acrobat Pro DC, and run the 'Full Check', under the 'Accessibility' toolbar.

There are specific approaches to fix each issue highlighted in the Accessibility Check results. Often, right clicking the issue will provide options to resolve the issues.

Screenshot of 'Fix' option from the Accessibility Check in Acrobat Pro DC

Choosing 'Fix' on a 'Missing Document Title' issue will sometimes ask you to provide a document title, and sometimes automatically substitute the name of the file or use an unhelpful document title attribute derived from the source document. document titles visible as browser tabsIn the screenshot above, note the tabs for each document show the document title. The 'Microsoft Word - ' at the beginning of the document title for these PDFs is unhelpful, as it does not describe the content. This should be removed.

To view or edit the document title, select the 'Properties' item from the 'File' menu. Titles should match the main heading of the document, and use plain text to describe the purpose of the document.

Document Title change screenTo add or change a document title, select the 'Properties' item from the 'File' menu.

Bulk Checking of PDF Content

There are some automated tools that the Web Office uses to review all of the documents on our website. These can provide a list of files with issues to be addressed, as well as to specific issues for each document.

screenshot of siteimprove PDF reportSiteImprove is an online tool that provides a list of PDF with accessibility issues. Contact the Web Office for access.

screenshot of siteimprove, showing issues with a PDFThis tool shows the specific issues with a PDF document

Contact Brennan Low or Sunny Walker to obtain a list of problem documents on your website.

Common Acrobat Accessibility Errors

PDF Accessibility Error – Tagged Form Fields

  1. Click on Tools > Accessibility > Full Check.
  2. Click on the tags icon on the left hand side.
  3. Right-click “Tags” and select Find…

Accessibility Checker Tags element highlighted

  1. Select “Unmarked annotations” in the drop-down box.
  2. Select “Search Document” radio button and click Find.

'Find Element' dialog box, with Unmarked Annotations selected

  1. If an untagged annotation is found, you will see a message appear with the format “Type: [Tooltip message]”
  2. Click Tag Element.

Tag Element button highlighted in the 'Find Element' dialog box

  1. Click “Form” in the drop down box.
  2. Provide a Title.
  3. Click OK.

A name being entered in the 'Title' field of the 'New Tab' dialog box

  1. Repeat steps 7 – 10 until no more untagged annotations are found.

PDF Remediation requires a recent version of Adobe Acrobat Pro (DC) and not the free Reader product. See the ITS Site License website for information about obtaining a copy of Acrobat Pro.

PDF Remediation Guides

PDF Remediation Basics

Making an Accessible, Form-Fillable PDF

Common Tasks

Remediating a PDF with missing Table Headers

Fixing and creating list tags for PDF accessibility

Remediating a PDF flyer in Acrobat Professional

How to Create a Fillable Form from a Word Document