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How Do I Create Accessible PDFs?


Diagram of various accessibility characteristics for the vision impaired

Creating accessible PDFs is essential for ensuring that your documents can be used by everyone, including people with disabilities. By following best practices and conforming to accessibility standards like WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), PDF/UA (PDF Universal Accessibility), and HHS (Health and Human Services), you can create PDFs that are inclusive and usable for all.

What Characteristics Make A PDF Accessible?

Before diving into the process of creating accessible PDFs, it’s important to understand what makes a PDF accessible. An accessible PDF will often contain some of the following characteristics:

  • Searchable text: The document should contain text that can be read by assistive technologies such as screen readers.
  • Fonts that allow character extraction: The fonts used in the document should allow for characters to be extracted as text.
  • Document structure tags and reading order: The PDF should have a logical structure with accessibility tags that define headings, paragraphs, lists, tables, and other elements. The reading order should be clear and logical.
  • Alternative text for non-text elements: Images, graphs, and other non-text elements should have alternative text descriptions.
  • Interactive form fields: If the PDF contains a fillable form, the form fields should be properly labeled and tagged as accessible fillable fields.
  • Document language and title: The PDF should have a specified document language and a descriptive title.

To ensure that your PDFs meet these criteria, it’s important to understand the accessibility standards that apply to PDFs. The three most common standards are:

WCAG logo


The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines provide a set of guidelines for making web content, including PDFs, accessible to people with disabilities. WCAG has three levels of conformance: A, AA, and AAA, with each level building upon the previous one.

PDF/UA Foundation logo


The PDF Universal Accessibility standard is a set of technical requirements for creating accessible PDFs. It ensures that PDFs can be read and navigated by assistive technologies, such as screen readers, and that they have a logical structure and reading order.

Department of Health & Human Services logo


The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has its own set of accessibility standards for electronic documents, including PDFs. These standards are based on WCAG and PDF/UA but have some additional requirements specific to HHS.

By conforming to these standards, you can create PDFs that are accessible and usable by the widest possible audience.

Why Is PDF Accessibility Important?

Blind person using computer with braille computer display and a computer keyboard.Creating accessible PDFs is crucial for several reasons:

Reaching a Wider Audience

By making your PDFs accessible, you ensure that everyone can access and use your content, regardless of their abilities. This includes people who are blind, partially sighted and/or web users with disabilities.

Enhancing User Experience

Accessible PDFs makes it easier to navigate and understand for users of assistive technologies such as screen readers. Tagged headings, alternative text descriptions, and other properly tagged elements make it easier for users to navigate and ingest the information in PDFs.

Social Responsibility

Creating accessible content is simply the right thing to do. It demonstrates a commitment to inclusivity and equal access to information for all individuals.

Legal Compliance

In many countries, there are laws and regulations that require electronic documents to be accessible to people with disabilities. For example, in the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandate that government agencies and businesses make their electronic information accessible.

How To Create An Accessible PDF

There are two main approaches to creating accessible PDFs: generating them at the authoring stage or remediating them post-composition.

Creating Accessible PDFs at the Authoring Stage with Authoring Tools

One way to create accessible PDFs is to incorporate accessibility features during the authoring, or composition process. This means using tools like Microsoft Word or other composition applications to create the source document with accessibility in mind. Here are some key steps:

Use Corresponding Headings

Organize your content with a clear hierarchy of headings (e.g., Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.). This helps users navigate the document and understand its structure.

Provide Alternative Text

Include alternative text descriptions for all images, graphs, and other non-text elements. This ensures that users who cannot see the visuals can still understand their content.

Define the Reading Order

Ensure that the reading order of the document is logical and clear. This is especially important for documents with complex layouts or multiple columns.

Use Meaningful Hyperlinks

When creating hyperlinks, use descriptive text that clearly indicates where the link will take the user. Avoid generic phrases like “click here.”

Create Accessible Tables

Ensure that tables have properly defined row and column headers as well as cell associations. Avoid using tables for layout purposes only.

Use High Contrast Colors

Choose text and background colors that provide sufficient contrast for users with visual impairments.

Specify the Document Language

Indicate the primary language of the document in the authoring tool’s settings. This helps screen readers render the content correctly.

Once you have created an accessible source document, you can export it to PDF format. Be sure to choose the appropriate export settings to preserve the accessibility features. However, always verify the final PDF generated to make sure the accessibility tags are retained, and that the PDF is truly accessible as well as usable.

Post-Composition PDF Remediation

Close-up Of A Businessperson's Hand Analyzing Bill On Digital Tablet Over DeskIn many cases, especially for high-volume transactional documents like bank statements or invoices, creating accessible PDFs during the authoring stage may not be feasible. In these situations, post-composition remediation is the most efficient and successful. This involves taking an existing PDF and adding accessibility features to it using specialized software tools.

Some of the key steps in post-composition PDF remediation are:

  1. Tag the Document: Add accessibility tags to the PDF to define its accessibility elements and reading order. This includes tagging headings, paragraphs, lists, tables, and other elements.
  2. Provide Alternative Text: Add alternative text descriptions for images and other non-text elements.
  3. Define Form Fields: If the PDF contains a fillable form, also known as an AcroForm, properly label and tag each form field to make it accessible to assistive technologies.
  4. Remediate Tables: Ensure that tables have properly defined row and column headers, as well as data cell definitions and associations and that they are tagged correctly.
  5. Specify the Document Language: Set the primary language of the document in the PDF’s properties.
  6. Perform OCR: If the PDF is a scanned image, use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to convert it to searchable text.

Several software tools are available for post-composition remediation, including CrawfordTech’s AccessibilityNow® suite of solutions. For high-volume documents, automated remediation solutions can significantly streamline the process.

For high-volume transactional documents, automated remediation solutions can significantly reduce the time and effort required to make PDFs accessible.

Checking and Remediating PDFs for Accessibility

Even if you’ve followed best practices for creating accessible PDFs, it’s important to check your documents for accessibility issues and remediate any problems you find. Here are some steps you can take:

Basic Accessibility Checks

Man using laptop to complete digital checkbox list overlay conceptStart with some basic accessibility checks to identify any obvious issues:

PAC (PDF Accessibility Checker)

Use a PDF accessibility checker such as PAC (PDF Accessibility Checker) to determine if the PDF is accessible or not.

Adobe Acrobat Pro Accessibility Checker

Use the Accessibility Checker in Adobe Acrobat Pro: an Accessibility Checker tool that can identify many common accessibility issues. To use it, go to Tools > Accessibility > Full Check.

Advanced Accessibility Testing

For a more thorough accessibility evaluation, you may need to do some manual testing:

  • Screen reader testing

    Use a screen reader like NVDA or VoiceOver to navigate the PDF and check for any issues.

  • Keyboard navigation testing

    Try navigating the PDF using only a keyboard to ensure that all content and functionality is accessible.

  • Checking reading order and structure

    Review the tag structure and reading order of the PDF to ensure that it matches the visual order of the content.

Remediating Inaccessible PDFs

If you find accessibility issues in your PDF, you’ll need to remediate them. Here are some common remediation tasks:

  • Adding Tags. PDFs use tags to identify the structure and order of content for screen readers. If the PDF isn’t tagged, adding tags is crucial.
  • Document Language. Specifying the document language ensures screen readers use the correct pronunciation and translation.
  • Headings Structure. Proper heading structure (H1, H2 etc.) helps screen readers navigate the document and understand its organization.
  • Tables and Lists. Ensure tables have proper structure (header rows, data cells) and lists are tagged correctly for navigation by assistive technology.
  • Alternative Text for Images (Alt Text). All non-decorative images need clear and concise alt text describing their content.
  • Color Contrast. Ensure adequate color contrast between text and background for better readability, especially for people with visual impairments.
  • Reading Order. Ensure the reading order follows the logical flow of the document for screen readers.
  • Bookmarks. Adding bookmarks to large documents allows users to jump to specific sections within the PDF.
  • Links. Descriptive link text should be used instead of just URLs for better understanding.
  • Verification and Testing. Use accessibility checkers and screen reader simulations to test the remediated PDF and identify any remaining issues.

Tools and Resources To Help Create An Accessible PDF

Here are some helpful tools and resources for creating and remediating accessible PDFs:

  • PAC (PDF Accessibility Checker) 3: PAC 3 is a free tool for checking the accessibility of PDFs. It can identify many common accessibility issues and provide suggestions for fixing them.
  • NVDA: NVDA is a free, open-source screen reader for Windows. It’s a useful tool for testing the accessibility of PDFs.
  • WebAIM: WebAIM is a web accessibility consulting organization that provides many helpful resources for creating accessible content, including PDFs.
  • Accessible Digital Office Document (ADOD) Project: The ADOD Project provides guidance and resources for creating accessible office documents, including PDFs.
  • Crawford Technologies AccessibilityNow Validator. A document evaluation program that will evaluate PDFs and determine the level of PDF accessibility for WCAG, PDF/UA and/or HHS standards.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a tagged and an untagged PDF?

A tagged PDF has a logical accessibility structure defined by tags tree, which describe the hierarchy and meaning of the content. An untagged PDF lacks this structure, making it difficult or impossible for assistive technologies to navigate and understand the content.

Can I make a scanned PDF accessible?

Yes, but it requires extra steps. You’ll need to use OCR (optical character recognition) to convert the scanned image to searchable text, and then add accessibility tags and other accessibility elements to the PDF.

How do I check if my PDF is accessible?

There are several ways to check the accessibility of a PDF:

  • Use an accessibility checker like CrawfordTech’s Validator tool.
  • Use a free tool like PAC (PDF Accessibility Checker) 3
  • Use the Accessibility Checker in Adobe Acrobat Pro
  • Test the PDF with a screen reader like NVDA or VoiceOver
  • If you are an expert at document accessibility, you can check the tags tree structure and reading order manually.

What are the most common accessibility issues in PDFs?

Some of the most common accessibility issues in PDFs include:

  • Lack of tags or incorrect tagging structure
  • Missing or incorrect alternative text for images
  • Missing document language definition
  • Insufficient color contrast
  • Inaccessible form fields when using fillable forms.
  • Improperly tagged tables.

How long does it take to remediate an inaccessible PDF?

The time required to remediate an inaccessible PDF can vary widely depending on the complexity of the document and the severity of the accessibility issues and user knowledge of document accessibility. For someone with document accessibility skills, a simple document with minor issues may only take a few minutes to fix, while a complex document with many issues could take several hours or even days.

What are the specific requirements of different accessibility standards for PDFs?

The specific requirements for PDF accessibility vary depending on the standard being followed. Here are some key points:

  • WCAG: WCAG has three levels of conformance (A, AA, and AAA) and covers a wide range of accessibility criteria, including perceivable content, operable interface, understandable information, and robust compatibility with assistive technologies.
  • PDF/UA: PDF/UA is a more technical standard that focuses specifically on the requirements for accessible PDF documents. It covers criteria such as tagged content, reading order, alternative text, and form fields.
  • HHS: The HHS standards are based on WCAG and PDF/UA but include some additional requirements specific to the department, such as minimum color contrast ratios and the use of HHS-approved fonts.

To ensure compliance with a particular standard, it’s important to consult the full documentation and checklist for that standard.

How can I make high-volume transactional PDFs accessible?

For high-volume transactional documents, such as bank statements or invoices, manual remediation may not be feasible. In these cases, automated remediation solutions can help streamline the process. These solutions typically involve:

  1. Template Creation: A template is created for each type of document, defining the structure, tags, and other accessibility features that should be applied.
  2. Batch Processing: The automated tool processes a large batch of PDFs, applying the appropriate template to each one and generating accessible versions of the documents.
  3. Making PDFs Accessible On Demand. Remediating documents on demand is the most efficient, cost effective and delivers documents on time.
  4. Quality Assurance: The remediated PDFs are checked for accuracy and compliance with accessibility standards, either through automated checks or manual review.

Automated remediation can significantly reduce the time and effort required to make high-volume PDFs accessible, while still ensuring a high level of quality and compliance.

Mastering PDF Accessibility with the Right Tools and Techniques

Blind man using laptop while sitting in city parkCreating accessible PDFs is an essential part of ensuring that your digital content can be used by everyone, regardless of their abilities. By understanding the principles of PDF accessibility, following best practices during authoring, and using the right tools and techniques for remediation, you can create PDFs that are compliant with accessibility standards and usable by all.

Remember, accessibility is an ongoing process, not a one-time fix. As you create new PDFs, prioritize accessibility from the start and test your documents regularly to ensure that they remain accessible over time. By making accessibility a core part of your document creation workflow, you can ensure that all users can access and benefit from your content.

Need help ensuring your PDFs are fully accessible? Contact Crawford Technologies for expert assistance in creating and remediating PDFs to meet the highest accessibility standards.

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