PDFs offer a convenient way to share print documents online since they’re quick and easy to create, maintain the visual design, and are easy to print and download. However, PDFs often contain issues for people who use assistive technology. The level of accessibility in a PDF file depends on the accessibility of the original document.
PDFs can be made more accessible, but normally require training, time, and more effort. It is recommended to avoid or minimize use of PDFs when possible.
Common barriers and issues
- PDFs missing structural tags or form field labels are inaccessible to people who use text-to-speech programs (such as screen readers or literacy software).
- PDFs are not responsive or shift around to suit the size of the user’s device and browser. Text does not reflow when enlarged or when viewing on smaller mobile devices.
- This requires readers to repeatedly scroll horizontally and diagonally to read long lines or follow columns, or repeatedly pinch and zoom on a mobile device.
- PDFs are less likely to be kept up to date and difficult to manage versions once published.
- It’s difficult to track usage of PDFs with analytics, which makes it difficult to identify issues or find ways to make improvements.
- PDFs are expensive to remediate for accessibility by professionals and third-party vendors.
More than 40% of torontomu.ca sessions are from a mobile device. It is important that documents are accessible and mobile friendly.
Source: torontomu.ca website analytics from January 1 to May 31, 2022.
Assessing if a PDF is accessible
An "accessible PDF" or "tagged PDF" is a PDF that includes hidden accessibility markup that helps optimize the reading experience for those who use screen readers and other assistive technology.
To assess if a PDF is accessible, use the built-in accessibility checker within Acrobat DC (Video: 2 minutes) (external link) or refer to Adobe’s documentation: Check accessibility of PDFs (external link) . This is a good first step in assessing a document, however it will only catch detectable issues, like missing alt text or form labels. It cannot accurately determine usability issues, like inaccurate alt text or reading order issues.
Types of PDFs and alternatives
There may be some cases where a PDF may be required to meet the needs of the user. For example, when there’s a need for a static document like a: transcript of what someone said at a particular point in time, academic transcript, or resume. If you can’t avoid publishing a PDF, ideally it should be in addition to an HTML version and the PDF must meet accessibility standards. Run the document through an accessibility checker to make sure it is read correctly. It is important to provide an alternative to an inaccessible PDF whenever possible.
Fillable forms are the most complex to create and require the most attention to make accessible. Keyboard and screen reader users will find PDFs difficult or impossible to fill out if input fields are missing descriptive labels, and if the reading and tab order have not been manually configured.
- At TMU, we recommend using Google Forms instead of fillable PDFs. For documents that require a signature from a TMU community member, you can configure forms to “collect emails” which would require someone to sign in with their TMU credentials.
- For administrative or feedback forms that do not require a signature, we recommend Google Forms or a web-based form created in the university’s content management system.
- If you can’t avoid publishing the form as a PDF:
- Assess the accessibility of the form or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to consult a specialist.
- Refer to resources and training on creating accessible fillable PDFs.
- Pay to have the form professionally remediated by a third party vendor.
PDFs that mostly consist of text and images are generally easier to make accessible, however may still pose challenges if they are not tagged correctly.
- If you are responsible for managing a TMU-affiliated website, we recommend creating the document as a web page instead.
- If the document was created in Microsoft Office, consider sharing it in its original format.
- If the document was created in Google Workspace, change the sharing permissions of the URL.
- Note: Google Workspace does not export accessible PDFs! If you must require a PDF, download the file as a Microsoft Word or PowerPoint document, and then export as a PDF.
- Don’t have access to the source Word or Google Doc file? Remediation in Acrobat DC can be a time consuming task. It’s most likely easier to start with a fresh document that follows best practices for accessibility.
- Creating a textbook or open education resources? Create a digital textbook on the Library’s PressBooks platform. The document can then be published in multiple formats including PDF, HTML, ePub, etc.
- Publishing research or an academic journal? Always ensure the source document is accessible, so it is easy to produce various accessible formats. Follow document accessibility practices. Reach out to the publisher to discuss how your document can remain accessible once published.
PDFs consisting of scanned pages are essentially just a series of images and are therefore not accessible to people who use screenreaders and/or digital literacy software. Images of text do not reflow either, which means they pose barriers to people who have low vision. Only an OCR (optical character recognition) scanner can convert a scanned document into plain, selectable text.
At TMU, we recommend using the Library's Accessible Formats Conversion Tool (SensusAccess) for scanned PDFs. The conversion tool uses OCR to convert the images of text into plain, selectable text. Acrobat DC can then be used to correct the tag structure, or the document can alternatively be published as an accessible Word or Google Doc instead.
Resources and training
Before learning the complexities of PDF, content creators should be familiar with the basics of creating accessible documents first. The original document should be accessible before it is exported to PDF format. If your document was created in Microsoft Office, use the accessibility checker (external link) before exporting.
Adobe Acrobat DC
- WebAim: PDF Accessibility (external link)
- PDF Accessibility: Tagged PDF by Microsoft (external link) (Duration: 2:38 minutes)
Advanced Adobe Acrobat DC
LinkedIn Learning is available through the Toronto Public Library (external link) if you have a library card.
There are two intensive courses on creating accessible PDFs. These may be more appropriate for individuals who are frequently required to create accessible PDFs in their position.
- LinkedIn Learning: Creating Accessible PDFs (external link) (Duration: 5.5 hours)
- LinkedIn Learning: Advanced Accessible PDFs (external link) (Duration: 4.5 hours)
- YouTube: Creating a more accessible PDF in Adobe InDesign (external link) (Duration: 11:23 minutes)
Laws & compliance
All websites at Toronto Metropolitan University must adhere to Level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 (external link) as of January 1st, 2021. This is a mandatory legal requirement (external link) stipulated by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). This law also applies to anything you upload to your website such as PDF documents, forms, and other media. Any documents or media uploaded within a course shell within the university’s learning management system must be made accessible upon request. Publishing accessible content from the start eliminates the need to provide accommodations for people with disabilities and people who use assistive technology.
There are two standards generally used to assess PDF accessibility: WCAG and PDF/UA. The WCAG includes guidance on creating accessible PDF, however is mostly geared towards web pages. The PDF/UA standard focuses on PDFs, PDF readers, and assistive technologies.
If you are providing an “accessible” alternative to a PDF, the contents within that alternative version must truly be equivalent.
Parts of this page was adapted from the following resources:
- PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption (external link) by Nielsen Norman Group
- Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading (external link) by Nielsen Norman Group
- Why GOV.UK content should be published in HTML and not PDF (external link) by UK's Government Digital Service