General directions for creating accessible PDFs

The accessibility level of a document can depend on a variety of factors.

Two majors questions to ask yourself when evaluating a document for accessibility are:
  • What was the original format of the document?
  • How was the document converted to a PDF?
One of the most critical aspects of accessibility is the way page elements and text are defined in a document. Assistive technologies interpret tags in a document and render content to the user accordingly. A well-tagged document enhances accessibility whereas a poorly tagged document introduces major accessibility problems. Always remember to check your document templates for accessibility.

Important aspects to consider during your check


For screen readers and other assistive technologies to correctly read the document, there should be an overall designation of the language in which the document is written. Furthermore, if lines or blocks of text within the document change language, that text should be tagged separately.

Document title

At minimum, documents should include basic information like a title. It is also a good idea to provide the name of the author, a description, and a few relevant keywords.

Tagging text

Text that is not actively tagged by the author will automatically be tagged as paragraph text. If the text is a heading, make sure you select a level of heading (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.), rather than just changing font size, color, or format. The most efficient way to tag the various elements of content is by using the “Styles” feature in the “Home” menu of MS Word toolbar. Simply highlight text and select the style needed to tag each section appropriately. After structuring your content, you can then change the font types and colors of these headings by modifying the heading style within the “Styles” menu.


An image can have different purposes depending on how it is used in the document. Many images are purely decorative, which should be conveyed with alternative text. It is important to define such images as "artifact," described further on.

Other images may have some sort of function or convey important information and, therefore, need a different kind of description in the "alt" text.


When data tables are used, it is important to tag their structure. At minimum, make sure you define which are the column and row headings. Keep your table structure as simple as possible; try not to merge rows and columns as it complicates navigation for assistive technology users.

Reading order

Assistive technologies rely on logical reading sequences to present content to users. During a document’s creation, it is extremely important to ensure there is a sensible reading order.


For many users, the easiest and most accessible way organize a table of contents is to provide bookmarks based on document headings. This gives users the ability to navigate the PDF using bookmarked headings, rather than having to read through the entire document to find what they need.

Conversion (exporting)

There are a variety of ways to create PDFs from different editing programs. The document’s accessibility can vary greatly depending on the way it is exported, converted, or saved. Later on, we will discuss the proper process for exporting a PDF to increase its accessibility.

Security settings

Lock settings on documents can make it more difficult, or ultimately impossible, for assistive technologies to extract content and render it to the user.

Make sure your final document is not locked, allowing it to be accessed by screen readers and more. Locking a PDF is not the same as password protecting it.


Most software providers have detailed guides to ensure accessibility while using their programs.

There are also software providers that offer plugins for creating accessible content. As you begin checking your PDFs for accessibility, you’ll find that there are several options available.

Have you created an accessible document in Word, Excel or InDesign? 

Congratulations - but you are not done yet! Always open the PDF in Adobe Acrobat and perform the Make Accessible feature. This is the final check needed to ensure that your document is in compliance. In most cases, this is where you will add/confirm the title of the document.

To run the Make Accessible feature in Adobe Acrobat:

  1. Open the PDF in Adobe Acrobat
  2. Select Tools in the upper right hand corner
  3. Expand the Action Wizard and select Make Accessible 
  4. Select Start and follow the prompts 

Additional resources

Checking the document

Creating accessible documents is not always as simple as it seems. It’s always advised that you perform a final accessibility check on the PDF to make sure there are no issues that need to be resolved.

Other things to consider

The background color and text color should be in sufficient contrast to one another, in order to allow everyone to read text clearly. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 gives guidance and recommendations for text sizes and compliance levels.

Additionally, avoid using references to content and information solely based on location on the page. Some users will receive the content in one long sequence, so instructions to click in a “box on the right” would not be meaningful or helpful to them. Supplement this by also including reference to a heading. For example, you could refer to “the box on the right with the heading Resources.

You should also make sure that documents can be zoomed to enlarge text without it becoming difficult to read. As users zoom in, text should not become pixelated. For this reason, avoid images of text as they don’t work well for several user groups, such as those with reading difficulties.

Lastly, avoid using text in images as it can’t be read by many types of assisted technologies. Text in an image can be defined as text that cannot be highlighted. Some aspects of accessibility can be checked automatically, while others need to be reviewed manually.