Everything on PDF accessibility - what does accessible PDF files mean?

Web Accessibility Knowledgebase

Read on to learn what an accessible PDF is and how you can make your PDF accessible for all people with disabilities.

accessiBe Team

PDFs are used on a daily basis by top institutions and businesses, right down to the average person you walk by on the street. Pretty much everyone uses PDFs, and with good reason as well - they’re compatible with most software and are overall an ideal way to share information online.

However, for people with disabilities, the PDFs that are shared often seem like a closed book. Despite their many advantages, if they’re not accessible, they can be frustrating to open and use for users with disabilities. 

Read on to learn what an accessible PDF is and how you can make your PDF files accessible for people with disabilities.

The main reason people love PDFs is that they’re compatible with almost every software. When you send someone a Word document you made on Microsoft Word 2007, they'll have compatibility issues if they try to open it on Microsoft Word 2017. But a PDF can be opened without difficulty on any system.

Secondly, PDFs can hold all kinds of content on a single document, including graphics, text, and links.

Finally, you can create a PDF easily from almost any source, including printers, scanners, and big photocopiers.

PDF uses in the workspace

It's not surprising that PDFs are used so much in the workplace. Government departments send material in PDF format because it can be sent as an email attachment while being encrypted to ensure security. Better yet, built-in tools register when it gets signed or initialed, thereby preventing someone from removing the signature and replacing it with their own. 

Large corporations are sending PDF resources with the confidence that everyone in the entire firm will be able to open them and see them formatted correctly, no matter what device or program they’re using. 

Schools, universities, and vocational colleges use PDFs to send assignments. Links for recommended reading, graphs, tables, sketches, or images, can all be held on the same PDF, making it far more convenient than requiring students to send or receive assignments in several different files.

Aren’t standard PDFs automatically accessible?

No, a standard PDF is what is created when you first make your PDF. A standard PDF doesn't meet accessibility guidelines and is most likely what you encounter on a regular basis.

A standard PDF can be a severe obstacle for people with disabilities mostly because it doesn't support assistive technology. If someone has low vision or is legally blind and uses a screen reader to navigate the internet, they probably won't be able to read a standard PDF. This is because assistive technology tools such as screen readers, text to speech software, screen magnifiers, and Braille displays aren’t automatically compatible with standard PDFs.

Sending an inaccessible PDF to a blind person will simply prevent this person from accessing, viewing, and interacting with the document. Something that most people take for granted, such as reading a simple PDF, is something people with disabilities struggle with daily. In reality, all documents should be accessible for people with limited or low vision, color blindness, and cognitive impairment.

How are accessible PDFs different?

The fundamental difference between an accessible and inaccessible PDF file is that one can be accessed, viewed, and interacted with by everybody, including people with disabilities. The other one cannot. For a PDF to be accessible, it must meet a set of accessibility guidelines. PDF accessibility standards include the WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1 accessibility standards and the PDF/UA (ISO 14289-1) standard.

How do tag trees help make a PDF accessible?

The main element that makes a PDF accessible is that it contains tag trees. These tags tell assistive technologies how to read the PDF content and identify headings, paragraphs, sections, and tables. 

They ensure that assistive tech tools move from section to section in the correct order, without skipping non-text items like graphs or images. Tags also tell a screen reader what is shown in a table, picture, or non-text content.

Finally, assistive technologies use the tags to resize the document if someone magnifies it, and mobile phones use them to fit the document to a mobile screen. The tags also guide everyone to complete the fields in the correct order.

How to make your PDF accessible

PDF can be turned into an accessible PDF, as long as you structure and tag it correctly to meet accessibility standards. If you create your document with accessibility in mind from the very beginning, this is a lot easier than editing it once the document has been made! 

Here are several elements that are looked at when making a PDF accessible:

  • Alt-texts for images and any other non-text content like graphs or data tables
  • Headings that follow a logical hierarchy (i.e., H1, H2, H3)
  • Color schemes, contrast ratios, and fonts that are easy to read
  • If interactive form fields need to be completed, ensure that the user can enter values and move from one field to the next logically using the keyboard.

It's more challenging if you're using a PDF that was created from a scan. These PDFs are interpreted as a single image, so you can't select and copy text, for example. You'll need to scan the documents with an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) tool to convert them into text, images, and tables before adding tags.

Some tools like Adobe Acrobat Pro and Acrobat DC add the tags automatically with the "save as accessible PDF" function. However, you’ll still need to check tags manually to see that they match up to the PDF content correctly.

An accessible PDF should be part of your accessible web policy

PDFs are so popular and used by so many companies and organizations that it's vital to make them accessible to people with disabilities. Thanks to today's AI tools and our remediation solutions service, there's no excuse to leave PDFs out of your accessible website protocols.


Will my PDF look different once it becomes accessible?

No, you can't tell if a PDF is accessible just by looking at it. At first glance, they both look the same. You can only see a difference if you open up the sidebar to view the tags. 

How can I check if my PDF is accessible?

Since you can't see any real difference between a standard PDF vs an accessible PDF, you can check your PDF accessibility in 3 different ways.

  1. As part of the Files Remediation solutions, an accessibility expert can test your PDF to analyze its accessibility status and send you the results.
  2. Using the free Acrobat plug-in. Note that this plug-in isn’t fully accurate and is likely to miss things.
  3. Manually: check if you can select text. If not, that means the PDF was created from a scan, and there's no way it can be accessible. Next, open the Tags panel in the Navigation pane in Adobe Acrobat Pro or Acrobat DC, and look for tags. If you see them, there's a good chance that the PDF is accessible.

Are there legal consequences if my PDF is not accessible?

Yes. PDF accessibility is part of the WCAG 2.1 standards. The four principles of WCAG are: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. If your PDF doesn’t comply with the WCAG principles, you’re putting yourself at risk of legal implications and accessibility-related lawsuits. Don’t take the risk; ensure that your PDFs are accessible with accessiBe.