How to Create Accessible PDF Documents

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  • These helpful tips on creating accessible documents in Microsoft Word come from the Disabled Students' Program.
  • It is recommended to use Microsoft Word or Adobe InDesign to create your PDF documents, as these programs allow you to save your original document to an accessible PDF format. Creating PDFs with these programs will also save you a lot of time, compared to editing your PDF directly in a PDF editing program like Adobe Acrobat Pro.
  • To ensure best practices for accessibility in documents created in Google Docs (bDrive), a tool called Grackle Docs is available. 

Before proceeding with the below tips, please review the tips for creating accessible Word documents. 

Tips for Creating Accessible PDF Documents

Creating a PDF File

First, you will want to make sure to follow the best practices for authoring accessible MS Word and Adobe InDesign documents.

Using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) Software

If the original MS Word or InDesign document is not available, you may want to use a scanner or software program that includes optical character recognition (OCR).

UC Berkeley libraries contain at least one Scannex station with OCR capabilities that converts a scanned document into a text-based document, which can then be edited in MS Word and saved as a PDF.

Finding Journal Articles in a Text-Based PDF Format

If you are using journal articles, search for the article using OskiCat and download the full-text PDF when it is available. These PDF articles are often text-based PDFs, which are easier to make fully accessible than image-based PDFs.

Checking the Accessibility of PDF Documents in Adobe Acrobat DC

To check the accessibility of your PDF document, we recommend using the following tools in Adobe Acrobat DC.

Note: These steps pertain to features found in Adobe Acrobat DC, not Adobe Reader.

  1. Run the Make Accessible Action Wizard
  2. Add text to your document
  3. Use a document title
  4. Set the document language
  5. Add alternative text for images
  6. Add a tag structure
  7. Recognize form fields, add tooltips to form fields, and add tags to form fields
  8. Use table headers
  9. Check the reading order
  10. Check for appropriate color contrast

1. Run the Make Accessible Action Wizard

The Make Accessible Action Wizard in Adobe Acrobat DC will guide you through the steps of making your PDF accessible. Each step will prompt you to add accessibility information that may have been missing from your PDF. At the end of the process, Acrobat DC will run a full accessibility check of your document and will recommend further steps you can take to remediate your PDF.

Adobe Acrobat Pro Action Wizard

2. Add Text to Your Document

Not all PDFs actually contain text in them. If your PDF is a text-based or a searchable PDF, you will be able to select text in the document. If you cannot select text in your document, you have an image-based PDF and must use OCR tools to recognize the text in your PDF.

Adding Text to Your PDF Documents

3. Use a Document Title

The document title is important so that users of assistive technology can hear the name of the document when opening the file and when switching between multiple tabs within a PDF program.

Setting the Document Title in PDF Documents

4. Set the Document Language

The document language determines which speech synthesizer is used by assistive technology programs.

Setting the Language of PDF Documents

5. Add Alternate Text for Images

Any images or figures that convey important information in your document must have alternate text. Alternate text is a short description of the image that will be read out loud to assistive technology users. Keep your alternate text to 1-2 sentences long.

Adding Alternate Text in PDF Documents

6. Add a Tag Structure

Accessible PDFs must have tags. Paragraphs must have paragraph tags, lists must have list tags, images must have image tags, tables must have table tags etc. These tags can be accessed by assistive technologies and make it possible for AT users to jump quickly to a desired section or item in the document.
When using headings tags, your tags should follow an orderly heading sequence, such as Heading 1-Heading 2-Heading 3, not Heading 1-Heading 3-Heading 2.

Adding / Repairing Tags in PDF Documents

7. Recognize Form Fields, Add Tooltips to Form Fields, and Add Tags to Form Fields

If your PDF will be used as a form, make sure all of the form fields are recognized and are given an appropriate tooltip. A tooltip provides a description of the form field and is read out loud by AT users. Form fields also should have a form tag and appear in the correct order within the tags panel.

8. Use Table Headers

To ensure that tabular data are read logically by assistive technologies, use table header tags for column headers, row headers, or both.

Adding Table Headers to Tables in PDF Documents

9. Check the Reading Order

You will need to manually check that the content in your PDF follows a logical reading order. To check the reading order, open the tags panel and arrow down. Move items up or down in the tags panel to correct problems with the reading order.

10. Check for Appropriate Color Contrast

You will need to manually check that your PDF document has sufficient color contrast. We recommend using the free Color Contrast Analyser tool, which is available for MacOS and PC. If there are contrast issues in your PDF, you will need to return to the authoring program and adjust the colors there.

NOTE: Any color contrast issues that are found will likely need be addressed in the source document (e.g., Microsoft Word.) If you find color contrast issues in a PDF, and re-export the PDF, you will need to re-do all the tagging and reading order work from the above tips. 

Color Contrast Analyser