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Accessibility of PDFs

How to make PDFs more accessible.

PDFs are bad for accessibility. Users can’t customise them for ease of reading, and they don’t work so well with assistive technologies like screen readers.

Wherever possible, create content in HTML formats. If you can’t avoid publishing a PDF, it should be in addition to an HTML version.

As a minimum, any PDF you publish must meet Level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.

Making your PDF meet the WCAG standard

A PDF is only as accessible as the document it’s created from.

When a document is converted into a PDF, it’s tagged. The PDF tag tree reflects the structure of the document, and it’s this structure that assistive technologies like screen readers use to navigate the document.

It’s important to format your content properly to give it a logical structure, for example by using styles to create headings rather than just making them bold and increasing the font size.

Read how to make accessible Word documents, and how to convert Word documents to PDF.

Checking before publication

Once you’ve followed steps to make your document accessible, check your file before publishing.

Using Microsoft Office 2016

Use the accessibility checker found in the ‘Review’ toolbar.

In Adobe Acrobat Pro

Once you’ve converted your file to a PDF, you can check the accessibility of it (and other PDFs) in Acrobat Pro.

Go to ‘Advanced’ then ‘Accessibility’ and select ‘Full check’. The PDF should pass the full check for WCAG 2.0 Level AA without any warnings.

Quick screen reader check

Ask a screen reader user to read through the PDF. If no-one is available to do this, use one of the following options instead.

Use NVDA

Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) is a free open source screen reader for Windows. It can be installed to the desktop or run from a portable USB thumb drive.

With NVDA running, open the PDF and use the following commands to check the PDF:

  • from the top of the PDF (with the numlock off), use Numpad 0 + Numpad 2 to read the PDF from top to bottom and check the reading order
  • use the tab key (repeatedly) to move through the PDF and check the tab order
  • use the h key (repeatedly) to move through the PDF and check the heading structure
  • use the g key (repeatedly) to move through the PDF and check for text descriptions

Please note, these commands will also work with the Jaws screen reader from Freedom Scientific.

Use VoiceOver

All Apple Macs have VoiceOver built in. Turn VoiceOver on (or off again) using Command + f5. With VoiceOver running open the PDF and use the following commands to check the PDF:

  • from the top of the PDF use a double finger down swipe, or ‘Control + Option + a’ to read the PDF from top to bottom and check the reading order
  • use the tab key (repeatedly) to move through the PDF and check the tab order.

VoiceOver does not provide shortcut keys for navigating by headings or graphics.