The Portable Document Format (PDF) provides a convenient way to view, send and print electronic documents. PDF documents are typically created in other applications, such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, but they can also be produced by scanning the pages of a journal article and by using special software like by Adobe® Acrobat to create fillable PDF forms. The following tutorials focus on these three types of PDFs—those converted from other types of electronic documents, those scanned from paper documents, and fillable forms. The tutorials also examine the features that make PDF documents more usable by a diverse audience, and provide techniques for improving the accessibility of existing and new PDF documents.

Converted PDF: Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat Professional

PDFs can be created from various software, but the resulting PDF may not automatically be accessible. Start with an accessible document, and configure the export options to include accessibility information. When exported correctly, components such as headings and alternate text will carry over to the PDF.

In the Acrobat toolbar Preferences menu, check the box for “Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF” under the Settings tab.

Enable Tagged PDF Screenshot

Use either the “Save As Adobe PDF” option in the “File” menu or the “Create PDF” option on the Acrobat toolbar.

Avoid using the Adobe PDF option found in your printers list. If you “Print to PDF,” all the accessible formatting will be lost.

Save as Adobe PDF option in File menu

Create PDF from toolbar

To use the built-in Microsoft PDF converter, there are two ways to convert to PDF without losing accessible formatting.

Option 1: Click on File > Export > Create PDF/XPS Document

Option 2: Click on File > Save As > PDF

Caution! Avoid Print to PDF, as this strips the document of formatting such as headings and alternate text.

Create PDF/XPS Document button on Export menu

In the export or save dialog, click on the Options button.

Options button on export dialog

Verify that the checkbox is checked: Document structure tags for accessibility and click OKClick on Publish to finish exporting to PDF.

Export options - Document structure tags for accessibility checkbox

Acrobat DC

Open the Accessibility Toolbar by clicking on Tools and searching for the Accessibility toolClick Add so that the tool will always show up in the toolbar on the right side of the document from now on.

Add Accessibility tool Acrobat DC

Click on the toolbar to open the Accessibility Tool.

Acrobat DC Accessibility Toolbar

Acrobat XI & Earlier

Open the Accessibility Toolbar by clicking on View > Tools > Accessibility. The toolbar opens on the right side of the screen.

Accessibility Tool Acrobat XI

Reading order is important to consider for content that isn't linear. It applies to the more heavily visual layouts such as websites and PowerPoint presentations, as well as to PDF documents with columns, images, or forms. Setting the reading order allows text-to-speech or screen reading software to read the information in a logical order. It also ensures that links and form fields can be tabbed through sequentially for users who navigate with a keyboard or screen reader.

On the Accessibility Toolbar, select Reading Order (Acrobat DC) or TouchUp Reading Order (Acrobat XI).

TouchUp Reading Order

Your page should now have some numbers on it. These are the 'Tags' that determine the reading order. If the order is incorrect, select Show Order Panel on the TouchUp Reading Order window:

Show order panel

The Panel will show up on the left side of the document, where you can drag the items into the correct order. Note that documents converted from Microsoft Office will have all of the images at the bottom of the reading order, so they need to be manually edited.

Tags out of order

Action Wizard - Acrobat DC

Click on Tools, then search for Action Wizard. Click on the Action Wizard icon to open the tool.

Search Tools for Action Wizard

In the toolbar on the right, select Make Accessible.

Make Accessible Wizard in Toolbar

Click on the Start button. Follow the prompts to fix items in the document. Click Close to return to the regular toolbar when finished.

Acrobat DC Make Accessible Start Button

Action Wizard - Acrobat XI

In the Toolbar, expand the Action Wizard. Click on the Make Accessible action.

Acrobat XI Make Accessible Wizard

When the tool opens, click on the Start button. Follow the prompts to add accessibility components to the PDF. When finished, click the Close button to return to the normal toolbar.

Make accessible wizard start button

Converted PDF: Adobe InDesign CC

As with other programs like Microsoft Word, InDesign documents must be formatted before exporting to PDF. The concepts are the same – headings, alternative text, reading order – but the mechanism for achieving these features during export are different in InDesign.

How you organize and present information plays a big role in determining the usability and inclusivity of your electronic content. Visual formatting—layout, spacing, color, and font selection—all affect the degree to which information can be easily read and understood. We know this from age-old principles of graphic design as well as modern studies of usability.

Yet we mustn’t rely on visual formatting alone to convey important information. That’s because not every reader will see your document the way you designed it due to varying screen sizes, printing, and photocopying. Others won’t see it at all; they will hear it using text-to-speech software. Thus, Visual formatting should be combined with structural formatting.

Structural formatting is accomplished with Headings. Headings are used to create an outline, or table of contents, that helps users to navigate the content more efficiently. This is especially true for readers who navigate using assistive technology. Thus, using headings is a very simple method of increasing the usability of your electronic content. You can apply headings in Word documents, on the web, and in Canvas courses.

  • Use headings to provide a page structure or outline
  • Nest appropriately - do not skip levels
  • Use headings to indicate sections of content. Avoid over-using them, especially for links.

Further resources on appropriate use of headings:

Use Paragraph Styles to format your InDesign document with headings and styles instead of using the font settings in the toolbar. An additional advantage of setting styles is that you can apply changes globally across your entire document, saving the time it would take to change each section individually.

Window > Styles > Paragraph Styles

In InDesign, select Window menu, styles, then paragraph styles

Once in the Paragraph Styles window, select the structure type that you want to assign to the highlighted text.

Paragraph styles window with H1 selected

To change the appearance of a particular style, double-click on it to bring up Paragraph Style Options.

Paragraph style options window with Basic Character Formats highlighted to change H1 style font settings

The headings and styles document structure that you create will not automatically transfer to PDF when you export from InDesign. In order to maintain headings and styles, specify how the styles should be recognized in the resulting PDF.

In the Paragraph Styles Options window (the same window where you edited the appearance of your styles), select Export Tagging. Under PDF, select the style that you want to see in the converted PDF. In this case, H1 will map to H1:

Export Tagging menu showing H1 selected in the PDF dropdown menu

Reading order is important to consider for content that isn't linear. It applies to the more heavily visual layouts such as websites and PowerPoint presentations, as well as to PDF documents with columns, images, or forms. Setting the reading order allows text-to-speech or screen reading software to read the information in a logical order. It also ensures that links and form fields can be tabbed through sequentially for users who navigate with a keyboard or screen reader.

To set reading order in InDesign, use the Articles panel: Window > Articles

Select Window, Articles

Drag content from the document into the Articles panel in the order the content should be read. You can drag multiple items by holding the shift key and selecting them in the correct order before dragging to the panel.

Articles panel showing content order

Images convey information quickly and powerfully—assuming they can been seen and understood. However, some readers may not understand the meaning of the image; others may not be able to see it due to visual impairment, personal viewing preferences (especially on the web), or technological limitations.

Alternate text (“alt text” or "alt tag") is added to an image to provide a textual alternative to visual information. Why is this important? Remember, some users won’t see your information; instead, they’ll hear it using text-to-speech or screen-reading software. By adding an alt text to an image, you make its meaning available to people who, for whatever reason, cannot see it.

Alternate text should be added to all non-text elements, including:

  • Pictures
  • Graphs
  • Charts
  • Tables
  • Microsoft Office SmartArt

Make alternate text meaningful to a listener:

  1. What is the context of the image? What meaning does it add to the page?
  2. Be concise. Describe only what you expect visual users to get out of the image.
  3. If the image is already described in the surrounding text, the alt text can be very short.
  4. Avoid redundant statements like “Image of” or “This is a picture of.” Simply state what it is.
  5. If an image is purely decorative, mark it as such (various methods depending on software).

If alt text does not exist from an originating document, it can be added manually within InDesign:

Select the image with the Selection tool. In the menus, select Object > Object Export Options

InDesign Object menu with Object Export Options selected

In the Alt Text tab, choose Custom from the Alt Text Source drop-down menu.

Note: Alt text can also be imported into InDesign from Microsoft Word or from Adobe Bridge metadata. To import existing alt text, select XMP: Description from the Alt Text Source menu instead of Custom.

Alt text dropdown menu with custom selected

Type the description in the text field.

Alt text box with description

Scanned PDF

One of the biggest barriers to PDF accessibility occurs with “image-only” documents. An image-only PDF contains no actual text, just an image of text. This type of PDF is created by scanning a printed page. Lacking any real text, an image-only PDF does not support useful features such as searching, highlighting, text copy, and text reflow; nor will it allow the use of Adobe’s magnification and reading tools.

Software such as Adobe Acrobat Professional can take an image-only PDF and convert it to "Searchable" using a process called Text Recognition, or Optical Character Recognition (OCR). The resulting document has text that you can interact with using a variety of technologies.

Benefits of a searchable PDF include the ability to:

  • Search text
  • Select text
  • Highlight text
  • Create a Table of Contents
  • Listen to text

Click on Enhance Scans in the toolbar.

Enhance Scans menu in toolbar

In the Enhance Scans toolbar that opens at the top of the page, select Recognize Text, then In This File.

Recognize Text menu in the Enhance Scans toolbar

Choose from the All Pages drop-down menu to do either All Pages or a range of pages (it is better not to do longer documents all at once), then click the Recognize Text button. Once the tool finishes running, you should be able to highlight text in the document. Save the document before closing.

Recognize text dialog highlighting All Pages dropdown menu and Recognize Text button

Click on Tools at the top right of the document. When the toolbar opens on the right side of the screen, click on Recognize Text to expand the menu.

Recognize text menu

Select In this File to bring up the OCR dialog box.
Choose a radio button to do either All Pages or just the Current Page, then Click OK. (All pages could take a while on longer documents.)
Recognize text dialog box

Once this finishes running, you should be able to highlight text in the document. Save the document before closing.
Sample PDF with text highlighted

Acrobat DC

Open the Accessibility Toolbar by clicking on Tools and searching for the Accessibility toolClick Add so that the tool will always show up in the toolbar on the right side of the document from now on.

Add Accessibility tool Acrobat DC

Click on the toolbar to open the Accessibility Tool.

Acrobat DC Accessibility Toolbar

Acrobat XI & Earlier

Open the Accessibility Toolbar by clicking on View > Tools > Accessibility. The toolbar opens on the right side of the screen.

Accessibility Tool Acrobat XI

Reading order is important to consider for content that isn't linear. It applies to the more heavily visual layouts such as websites and PowerPoint presentations, as well as to PDF documents with columns, images, or forms. Setting the reading order allows text-to-speech or screen reading software to read the information in a logical order. It also ensures that links and form fields can be tabbed through sequentially for users who navigate with a keyboard or screen reader.

Tags are how Adobe designates document structure in a PDF. They indicate reading order as well as headings and alternative text for images. Tags must be added to a scanned PDF.

To add tags in Acrobat DC, open the Accessibility Toolbar, and click on Autotag Document.

Acrobat DC Autotag Tool

To add tags in Acrobat XI, open the Accessibility Toolbar, and click Add Tags to Document.

Add tags menu in XI

To check the accuracy of autotags, switch to the Order Panel to see if the document has been tagged correctly. The numbers in the panel correspond to the numbers highlighted on the page.

Acrobat Tag Viewer

On the Accessibility Toolbar, select Reading Order (Acrobat DC) or TouchUp Reading Order (Acrobat XI).

TouchUp Reading Order

Your page should now have some numbers on it. These are the 'Tags' that determine the reading order. If the order is incorrect, select Show Order Panel on the TouchUp Reading Order window:

Show order panel

The Panel will show up on the left side of the document, where you can drag the items into the correct order. Note that documents converted from Microsoft Office will have all of the images at the bottom of the reading order, so they need to be manually edited.

Tags out of order

Images convey information quickly and powerfully—assuming they can been seen and understood. However, some readers may not understand the meaning of the image; others may not be able to see it due to visual impairment, personal viewing preferences (especially on the web), or technological limitations.

Alternate text (“alt text” or "alt tag") is added to an image to provide a textual alternative to visual information. Why is this important? Remember, some users won’t see your information; instead, they’ll hear it using text-to-speech or screen-reading software. By adding an alt text to an image, you make its meaning available to people who, for whatever reason, cannot see it.

Alternate text should be added to all non-text elements, including:

  • Pictures
  • Graphs
  • Charts
  • Tables
  • Microsoft Office SmartArt

Make alternate text meaningful to a listener:

  1. What is the context of the image? What meaning does it add to the page?
  2. Be concise. Describe only what you expect visual users to get out of the image.
  3. If the image is already described in the surrounding text, the alt text can be very short.
  4. Avoid redundant statements like “Image of” or “This is a picture of.” Simply state what it is.
  5. If an image is purely decorative, mark it as such (various methods depending on software).

Use the Action Wizard in Acrobat to detect any images (Figures) in a PDF. (See instructions on using the accessibility checker in Acrobat.)

Acrobat DC - detect images in PDF

The Wizard will prompt you to add alternate text to any images it finds.

Acrobat DC - Add alt text to figure

Action Wizard - Acrobat DC

Click on Tools, then search for Action Wizard. Click on the Action Wizard icon to open the tool.

Search Tools for Action Wizard

In the toolbar on the right, select Make Accessible.

Make Accessible Wizard in Toolbar

Click on the Start button. Follow the prompts to fix items in the document. Click Close to return to the regular toolbar when finished.

Acrobat DC Make Accessible Start Button

Action Wizard - Acrobat XI

In the Toolbar, expand the Action Wizard. Click on the Make Accessible action.

Acrobat XI Make Accessible Wizard

When the tool opens, click on the Start button. Follow the prompts to add accessibility components to the PDF. When finished, click the Close button to return to the normal toolbar.

Make accessible wizard start button

PDF Forms

For a form to be accessible, it should be usable by people who use a screen reader or a keyboard to navigate.

  1. A user should be able to complete a form using only a keyboard, including interacting with dialog boxes
  2. Form fields should be labeled descriptively
  3. Tab order should be logical

In order to edit a form in Acrobat, open the form editor tool. In Acrobat DC go to Tools > Prepare Form. In earlier versions of Acrobat, go to Tools > Forms > Edit.

Acrobat DC Prepare Form option in toolbar

Acrobat Form Field Labels

Once the form field editor is open, existing form fields will be highlighted within the document. The form field labels will appear inside fields. Check these labels to make sure they are descriptive. In the example below, you can see that the Student Name field matches the label.

Acrobat form field label view

If the label does not match, double-click on the label to edit it. In the Text Field Properties dialog box that appears, edit the Name field.

Add form field label in the Name field of the Text Field Properties dialog

Acrobat Form Tab Order

Once your labels are correct, check the tab order. Keyboard and screen reader users will use the Tab key to jump from one field to the next, and this needs to happen in a logical order. To see the tab order, click on the drop-down menu icon next to "Fields" in the Form toolbar (Acrobat DC). Select Show Tab Numbers.

Acrobat Prepare Forms drop-down menu to show tab numbers

Now you should see numbers inside of each form field that tell you the tab order. In the screen shot below, the logical order for the check boxes is mp3 (6), PDF (7), then Daisy (8). With the current incorrect tab order, it will be read as mp3, Daisy, then PDF.

Acrobat form field labels with incorrect tab order

To fix the tab order, select the PDF label on the form. This will also select the correct label in the toolbar on the right. In the toolbar, select and drag "PDF" upwards into the correct position between mp3 and Daisy.

Acrobat form field label sidebar showing how to drag into the correct position for tab order