Accessibility and Inclusion
Accessibility & Inclusion

PDF Accessibility: Everything You Need to Know to Create Accessible PDFs

May 19, 2021 10 minute read
Let's take a look at why PDF accessibility is important, the benefits of accessible PDFs, and how you can make them accessible.

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Accessibility and Inclusion

What is an accessible PDF? It’s a PDF document that allows people with disabilities and vision impairments to access and read it. It should be formatted in a way that assistive reading technologies like text-to-speech readers or Braille readers can interpret the content, but that doesn’t happen organically.

When PDFs originate from scans and are converted into images, assistive reading technologies won’t find text in the document or be able to interpret images. (If you’ve ever tried to copy/paste text from PDF but couldn’t select the text on the page, that was a scanner-generated PDF.) An accessible PDF has distinct page elements that interpretive software can access and understand.

In this post, we’ll look at why PDF accessibility is important, what the benefits are of providing accessible PDFs, and how to optimize PDFs for web accessibility.

The popularity of PDF documents

A PDF is the perfect medium for presenting different types of information in a single document. Text, photos, charts, logos, and other items become fixed in a PDF, so the end-user can’t delete or reorder page elements. PDFs also preserve the original formatting, which means fonts will always render correctly across browsers and operating systems. All of these factors make PDFs popular with businesses.

PDFs are superior to Word or Google documents when it comes to security. For example, human resources teams can password-protect scanned employee documents, like Social Security cards or driver’s licenses, whereas a Social Security number entered into a standard word processing document could be vulnerable to security breaches.

Today, PDFs are a widely used online document format. In business settings, people appreciate that they can preview PDFs from their inbox, without the need to launch a separate program. That makes PDFs accessible for the majority of computer users. But people with certain disabilities won’t have that same level of access unless creators of PDFs optimize their documents in some specific ways.

Standard PDFs vs. accessible PDF documents: What’s the difference?

If you were to use the same content to create a standard PDF and an accessible PDF, you might not notice any differences in the appearance of the two documents. That’s because the features that make a PDF accessible may be hidden on the backend (we’ll explain that in more detail later).

The way a document is structured can help all readers — not just people with disabilities — interpret the content. For example, including a table of contents as a sidebar or in the intro, with hyperlinks to each corresponding section of content, helps readers understand the main points in a piece of content, and they can jump to the section that they find most relevant.

Other factors that influence PDF accessibility include:

  • White space (using space to separate text blocks and images)
  • Typography (using a simple, familiar font)
  • Contrast and/or color (adding color and/or high-contrast elements that call out the most important information)
  • Formatting (using bulleted lists like this one to draw attention to key points)


In the excerpt below from an accessible PDF, note how the elements are distinct and easy to understand. The creator of this page included a table for ticket pricing, bullet points to showcase vendors, and bold font to draw attention to the headline acts and the main information sections.

Design and formatting matter when creating accessible PDFs, but even more important are the federal guidelines that apply to overall website accessibility, as well as documents on websites. We’ll cover those guidelines in the next section.

Which accessibility standards apply to PDF documents?

Applicable accessibility standards include Section 508 for federal agencies and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, both based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). While federal agencies must comply with WCAG, private businesses are not obligated to make their websites accessible. However, courts have routinely looked to WCAG when claims are filed against businesses that don’t have accessible websites. PDFs must also adhere to the PDF/UA (ISO 14289-1), which defines the requirements for universally accessible PDF documents, as well as the HHS.

So, even though businesses won’t suffer any criminal penalties or civil fines for failing to comply with WCAG, they could run the risk of being sued. Last year, there were 3,550 active digital accessibility lawsuits in the United States, primarily against retailers.

PDFs can be designed to comply with WCAG 2.1, the EU Web Accessibility Directive, the PDF/UA, and other accessibility standards. Not only does this shield businesses from potential litigation, but it also can also demonstrate a business’s commitment to digital accessibility and help businesses reach new customers.

Tagging and metadata improve PDF accessibility

As we mentioned earlier, backend information helps assistive reading technologies interpret a PDF. That information might include the author, page title, subject, language, and keywords — broadly referred to as “metadata.”

Besides the metadata, PDF accessibility also includes tagging. Tags are used to define the outline or structure of the PDF. You can view the tag tree in PDF readers like Adobe Acrobat Pro or Acrobat DC through the Tags panel on the Navigation menu to the left.

Tags help assistive technology interpret the content, elements, and the reading order of the document. Tags have to be done correctly; headings, subheadings, bulleted lists, tables, links, and other types of content that demonstrate a document’s hierarchical structure must be tagged and nested accordingly.

Tags apply to images, too. On the backend, a short description — known as “alt text” — summarizes the scene for assistive reading software. This description should include details such as objects, people, colors, setting, and other important features, but it should be 100 characters or fewer, for best readability.

Alt text applies to meaningful content. It’s not necessary to add alt text for graphics or images that are merely placeholders or part of the PDF’s design (for example, a colored bar between content blocks, or a scrollwork image that’s part of a company’s letterhead). Instead, these elements must be tagged as artifacts so that screen readers and other assistive technology can register that they are there for decorative purposes.

If you’re not sure how to check the metadata and tagging for a PDF, you can use PDF scanning software to evaluate your document and get a report that shows you what elements, if any, you need to change.

The benefits of making PDFs accessible

Improving PDF accessibility can protect businesses from lawsuits, but that’s not the only reason it should be a priority. Here are some other reasons accessible PDF documents are important:

A better user experience

Documents that are well-formatted, with headings, subheadings, and a logical hierarchy, are better for all visitors to your site. As you reformat PDFs, you can also update your content to make sure it’s still relevant.

Connections with more consumers

Web accessibility improvements can help you connect with more customers. If you sell products that have PDF user guides or specifications, it’s especially important to make sure those are accessible PDFs.

A competitive edge

With so much competition in the online marketplace, businesses must look for every opportunity to set themselves apart from their peers. If you can provide a user-friendly and inclusive experience, you may have a competitive advantage, and not just because you remove barriers for people with disabilities. One study revealed that 62% of consumers make purchasing decisions based on a company’s values and authenticity.

A Google-friendly website

While you might think of PDFs as pieces that are separate from your website, Google’s bots do crawl PDFs — or they attempt to, anyway. The bots can’t read inaccessible PDFs. Making your PDFs accessible helps Google gather more information about your website, which in turn could improve your website’s visibility in search engine results pages.

How to check PDF accessibility

The simplest way to determine PDF accessibility is to try to copy text in the document. If you can’t do that, the page is not accessible. But if you can, it still doesn’t mean that the PDF is accessible; you’ll need additional information to evaluate the overall accessibility of your PDFs.

Evaluate internal and external PDF documents

Accessibility is a concept that businesses should embrace internally, as well as externally. Choose a PDF accessibility scanner, like CommonLook’s Clarity, available via Monsido by Acquia’s Accessibility module, that can review both internal and external documents.

Run PDF accessibility scans

When you scan your PDFs, the scanning software will review metadata, fonts, objects, images, tags, lists, forms, links, and tables, and provide a report on each document. Common PDF readers like Adobe Acrobat have accessibility features that allow you to run an accessibility check on your document and generate a report on all found issues. Software like CommonLook’s Clarity is also available as a more robust option specifically dedicated to scan PDFs for accessibility.

Remediate PDF documents

Should your scan reveal any PDF accessibility issues, you can make changes yourself, but this requires some knowledge in web accessibility and PDF tagging. If your organization lacks the expertise to tackle this task, PDF scanning software is available that offers remediation solutions. Monsido, for example, has partnered with CommonLook to not just provide PDF accessibility scans via their Clarity tool, but also to offer CommonLook’s remediation service to users upon request. Accessibility reports and remediated PDF documents will then be delivered via the Monsido platform.

Frequently asked questions

How do you know if a PDF is accessible?

Attempt to highlight/copy text in a PDF. If you can’t select it, the document is not accessible. You can also try to have the text read out loud to you using screen readers built into the PDF reader, like the Read Out Loud feature in Adobe Reader, or the Speech function in Mac Previews.

How do I know if my PDF is 508 compliant?

You can download a free PDF validator to determine whether your document is compliant with Section 508. You can also run your PDF through an accessibility check if you use Adobe Acrobat.

How do I fix PDF accessibility problems?

Many accessibility problems can be avoided if you create your PDFs using the best practices (simple formatting, headings, subheadings, etc.). Some PDF accessibility software, like CommonLook, does offer support, if you’re not sure how to make the changes yourself.

Are PDFs accessible to screen readers?

PDFs should be accessible to screen readers, but often, they aren’t.

With Monsido by Acquia’s PDF accessibility add-on, powered by CommonLook’s Clarity, you can quickly scan your internal and external PDFs to evaluate their accessibility. If the results show that you need to improve accessibility, you can request remediation from the PDF experts at CommonLook through the Monsido platform, and we’ll provide you with remediated documents and updated accessibility reports.

Don’t run the risk of alienating potential customers or facing litigation. Sign up for a free demo today, and see how we can improve the accessibility of your entire website.

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