How To Make Your PDF Accessible

Illustration of two people using laptops, one is wearing headphones

There are a lot of ways to get information to your designated audience these days.  From web pages to spreadsheets to ePubs to ASCII art.  And sometimes, a PDF is a great option.  But not all PDFs are made with accessibility in mind.  If you’re not careful, you could risk alienating a large chunk of your potential audience.  Or, worse, you could end up facing legal action.  

Fear not, turning a regular old PDF into an accessible one is something that you can often do fairly easily on your own.  However, if you’re going to be working with a large volume or want to incorporate a PDF accessibility process into your workflow, it’s never a bad idea to consult with an accessibility professional. 

What Are We Working With? 

Some PDFs will be pretty easy to make accessible.  Others?  Not so much.  It really depends on the content you’re working with and its origin.   If you’ve got a grainy, black and white scan of a text book, for example… Accessibility might not be in the cards. But if you’ve got something like a Word document that’s been converted to a PDF, some of the work may have already been done for you. 

First things first, can you highlight individual words?  If not, take a look at the next step, regarding OCR.  If you can highlight the words, try running the PDF through Adobe’s Accessibility Checker.  Passing this test won’t necessary mean that your PDF is guaranteed 100% accessible.  But it can provide a good place to start and help you correct any glaring errors or omissions. 

OCR: For Pictures Made Up Of a Thousand Words

OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition. It’s a technology that’s actually been around for quite a while now.  Basically, you run your PDF—which a computer currently cannot read—through an OCR tool and it assigns computer-readable to text to the text pictured in your image (PDF in this case). These softwares are very accurate these days (especially if your document is clear and legible) however the process can be fairly time consuming.  It’s really better to create your PDFs with accessibility in mind and avoid making OCR a regular part of your workflow. 

Tagging: Where The Real Magic Happens

Accessible PDFs are compatible with assistive devices.  In order to make your PDF compatible with assistive devices, you’ll need to provide additional context in the form of tags. These tags let the device know what it’s looking at when it reads through your document.  For example, if you have an image, you’d tag that image as a “Figure” so that the assistive device knows to tell the reader that there is an image appearing.  

Tags also provide important context as to the structure of your PDF.  They ensure that your content is presented in a way that makes sense and is navigable.  The tags used by PDF software are similar to HTML tags but they use a slightly different syntax.   Depending on the origin of your PDF, some of this work may have already been done for you.  It is still important, however, to ensure that your PDF’s tags are accurate and comprehensive. 

As you can see, making one or two short PDFs accessible by hand is a fairly manageable task.  But many of these processes can be time consuming.  Manually making PDFs accessible likely isn’t something you’ll want to add to your workload.  If you work with a lot of PDFs, an accessibility consulting firm can help you design a more comprehensive solution. 

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