Making PDF’s Accessible

The Portable Document Format (PDF) developed by Adobe can be made accessible, but it very much depends on how the original document is designed if you are using the save as PDF option rather than developing the document in Adobe Acrobat Pro using accessibility tags. If it is a document created in a publishing application, scanned or saved from a Microsoft Word document and locked down for copyright reasons then saved as PDF, it may act in the same way as a picture. This means the text cannot be read by a screen reader or adapted for easier reading. It is appreciated that the concept of the PDF is to ensure that printed or saved versions of a document remain as the author intends, but there are ways to help the reader who uses assistive technologies or requires different formats of the text and graphics.


  • If you save or export as PDF from any Microsoft Office document add ‘alt tags’ to pictures or diagrams (menu – format picture) and these will be carried over into the PDF as will the use of style sheets with headings or templates, page numbers and tables that have headers with the main information e.g. in a calendar the days of the week would go along the top. However, these features may not work if you print to PDF. 
  • If you save the PDF from a publishing application or it has been scanned and is in picture format make sure you offer an alternative in HTML or other accessible document format. As mentioned in the introduction adding alternative text and helping the reader to follow the correct reading order is possible when provided with an unlocked PDF by adding appropriate tags etc if you have Adobe Acrobat Professional. 
  • Adobe Acrobat Professional may not be available to staff, but if you are using this application – follow the advice about creating accessible PDFs and use the ‘Accessibility Setup Assistant’ under the ‘Advanced menu’. There are guidelines for tags to describe pictures, structure, form fields and reading flow when magnified. If you need to scan in a document use the Optical Character Recognition offered in the latest versions – use the Accessibility Check with ‘Create Accessibility Report‘ and ‘Include repair hints in the Accessibility Report’ boxes checked.
  • Test your document by using Adobe Reader Accessibility Quick Check under the Document menu and the Read Out Loud feature under the View menu. You can also upload your PDF to the free PAVE Checker. Offer alternative formats such as HTML and RTF or Office documents in their original format if they are available.

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