How To Make PDF Documents More Accessible?

An estimated 15% of internet users are visually impaired or blind. To ensure that the PDF documents are accessible to all users it is essential to make it accessible. Find out how to make it accessible...

Portable Document Format, commonly known as PDF was initially developed so that the documents saved can be printed. Slowly but gradually this format became a standard for exchanging digital files as the users are able to view the documents irrespective of the environment in which it was created. Now, most of the documents on public or private websites are stored in this format. But one major drawback with this format is, they are not accessible to the visually-impaired. This can impact the browsing experience and lead to a loss of credibility in business.

What is an PDF Accessibility?

There are numerous documents in various file formats available on the websites and the internet in general. These files have to be accessible to all including people with visual and hearing disabilities. PDF accessibility is the process of editing the files so that they are interpreted properly with the help of software or tools like Braille, speech synthesizers.

Who is concerned about PDF Accessibility?

As per estimates, up to 15% of the population has some form of visual impairment. Many of them use assistive technologies to read documents or text written on websites. But many complex PDFs cannot be interpreted or read properly using tools like speech synthesizers. Thus PDF accessible files are useful for:

Blind: People who are completely visually impaired and use Braille along with screen readers.

Visually impaired: People who have a visual acuity of less than 4 out of 10 when viewed at a distance of 5 meters. It is useful for people who use voice synthesizers or tools to enlarge fonts.

Benefits of Accessible PDFs

A PDF accessible file offers many benefits, some of them are listed below:

  • It helps to reach a wider audience by making it accessible to all including people with visual impairments.

  • The business gets an enhanced image as a socially responsible company. Also, it ensures accessible communication and transparency.

  • It fulfills the legal obligations of the files being in accordance with the WCAG 2.0, Section 508 and ADA.

  • It helps in boosting SEO as the use of tags aids in the better structure of documents

  • The visual appearance of a document is not altered when it is made accessible and hence one document is distributed to all.

Creating Accessible PDFs

How to make PDFs accessible is the most common question that arises, but it all starts at the source document level.

PDFs created from MS word Doc: The word documents are the easiest of formats to make it accessible. If you are creating a new word document making it accessible is easy. First, create a document that is accessible and most of the accessibility will then be carried forward to the PDF too. MS word has a lot of functionality that makes it easy to create documents with accessibility. For example, the Styles option can help in creating various sections within the different fonts and styles. Use list functionality instead of using bullets or numbers to automatically format lists. Tables can be added to the document, etc. Make use of the features to create a structured document.

Any issues with accessibility can be checked by the ‘check accessibility’ option in MS Word before saving the document. But note that not all issues are caught by the automated checker and hence expertise in manually checking is essential. So many businesses prefer to hire the services of professional companies who can aid in designing and testing the documents for accessibility. The results will be displayed on a panel and the errors must be addressed. After checking the document, it can then be saved as a PDF file. Depending on the version of MS Word, the checkbox for ‘document structure tags’ or ‘enable accessibility and reflow with Tagged PDF’ should be enabled before saving the file.

PDFs created through scan: The scanned documents are pictures of the original. The information contained in these scanned images is not accessible as computers can’t read them. Hence, this has to be first converted into an optical character recognition image by using Acrobat Pro so that the computer can read it. The scanned images contain bitmaps and the software converts the bitmap into actual characters by performing the OCR (Optical Character Recognition). It can be done in two ways either by using the Scanned Page Alert Dialog box or by using the Action Wizard in Tools Menu of the Acrobat Pro.

PDF Files created from Adobe Indesign: Adobe Indesign which is a desktop publishing application is used to create ebooks, newspapers, magazines, etc. These files can be converted into PDF accessible files by applying the accessibility features. Create your documents using the ‘Paragraph’ styles so that the documents are accessible. Use ‘styles’ for the text that includes headings and subheadings. Ensure that you associate each of the styles with specific PDF tags. Add alt text to all images. In the Articles menu use the content read to establish read order. Export the document to PDF and ensure that you select the ‘Create tagged PDF’ checkbox.

The process of creating accessible PDF

PDF accessibility is dependent on how well the source document is structured. How to create accessible PDFs is determined by the original source, the more the source is inaccessible more it becomes difficult. When creating a new document or remediating the old one there are a few core steps that should be followed. These steps for accessibility are regardless of whether the document is MS Word, PDF, scanned image or even an HTML.

  • Headings: Should be added to help the screen readers know the page structure and also to navigate to the content that the reader is interested in.

  • Lists: It is useful for the tools to know how the content is organized. It also helps to inform the number of items on the list.

  • Hyperlinks: Tells the information about the destination it is leading to. Use a URL to create a meaningful link name.

  • Alt text to images: It helps to communicate the content of the image to people who cannot see the image.

  • Use tables: Table represents the data in a simple but effective manner. If the table is complex, make it into multiple tables with headings for each.

  • Learn to export from one format to another: A tagged PDF is considered as an accessible PDF. There are many tools that can be used to convert the file from one format to another. Use the right authoring tools that support tagged PDFs. Creating accessible PDFs is not simple and needs a lot of testing.

How Are Accessible PDFs Tested?

Before proclaiming that the document is accessible it needs to be tested to ensure that everything on the document is readable by speech synthesizers. Testing of these can be done using a manual process as well as using automated tools. One of the commonly used tools is the PAC, PDF Accessibility Checker which determines accessibility. After the results are processed by the tools, the readings have to manually check to know its accuracy. Testing using screen readers is also essential to ensure that every aspect of the document is accessible. The accessible documents should be as per the Section 508 guidelines so that it is accessible via all assistive technologies.

What Criteria Must an Accessible PDF Meet?

PDF/UA Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 requirements need to be fulfilled for accessibility. The scope of this is not more of a set of guidelines so that the file is available for all possible users including those with disabilities. Some of the components included in the guidelines are:

  • Text that can be recognized by the computer

  • Interactive form fields

  • Creating navigational aids like bookmarks, table of contents, headings, etc

  • Including title so that users can find the document easily

  • Document structure tags

  • A proper and logical reading order

  • Alt text for images, videos, etc

  • Properly formatted tables

When these files are made accessible it increases the usability and enhances the reach for all users including those with visual impairments.