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How To Make a PDF Accessible and ADA Compliant

Document labeled PDF with the AudioEye icon in the bottom right corner

Web-delivered PDFs must be accessible for users with disabilities. Here’s how to identify — and avoid — some of the most common compliance issues.

All organizations have a legal and ethical responsibility to provide accessible digital content for people with disabilities. That responsibility extends to web-delivered documents. If your customers or employees need to read an Adobe PDF (Portable Document Format), you need to think about accessibility when creating those resources. 

Below, we’ll explain some common PDF accessibility barriers and outline a few solutions for ensuring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws. 

If you need to remediate issues with PDFs that you’ve already created and published, we’re here to help. AudioEye’s document remediation services includes manual testing and QA from assistive technology (AT) users.

PDF document that is inaccessible to people with disabilities.

Why is PDF Accessibility Important?

Many businesses use PDFs and other web-delivered documents for essential purposes. If content is long or designed for print, PDFs might be preferable to a traditional web page.

However, it’s important to remember that all online content must be fully accessible for individuals of all abilities. Under Title III of the ADA, businesses that are open to the public must provide full and equal access to people with disabilities. The Justice Department has consistently taken the position that the ADA applies to online content, and online documents are no exception.

When authoring your documents, you’ll need to avoid creating barriers for individuals with disabilities. Many PDFs are published without appropriate tagging to define their structure, or worse, they’re static images of text. These issues can create barriers for people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies.

Fortunately, there are technical frameworks for building better documents:

  • The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard 14289-1, also known as PDF-UA-1, provides accessibility requirements for PDF documents. 
  • The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) publishes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which contains numerous pass-or-fail success criteria that can be applied to web-delivered documents.

To create ADA-compliant documents, you should build an accessibility strategy that follows both of these standards. Of course, your primary goal is to focus on usability: If your users can’t access your documents, you’re missing an opportunity to connect with the 1 billion individuals living with disabilities worldwide.

Missing Language Definitions

Language definitions are required by WCAG Success Criterion 3.1.1. By adding appropriate language tags to your PDFs with the /Lang entry, you can ensure that you meet this rule.

If you have a form available in different languages, make sure each version is tagged properly. if you use two or more different languages in the same document, then make sure you add language definition for every passage written in a different language.

Poor Reading Order

WCAG requires that information, structure, and relationships conveyed through presentation can be programmatically determined or are available via text. For PDFs, the simplest way to meet this guideline is to establish the reading order through tagging.

If the reading order is not correct, keyboard and assistive technology users may not be able to understand the content. For example, a screen reader may read multiple columns from top to bottom, instead of flowing from the top to the bottom of the first column.

When PDFs contain accurate tagging, all users benefit: Documents with clear structures can display on different screens while maintaining the same reading order. By defining the reading order, you can establish structure without changing your document’s visual appearance.

If you don’t define the structure of your PDFs, your documents might operate unpredictably. This is especially important if your PDF contains fillable forms, tables, multiple columns of text, or ornamental elements.

Vague Titles and Headings

People who use assistive technologies may “scan" your document to find the information they want to read. You can make your documents more scannable by adding tags for titles, subheadings, chapters, and other structural elements.

PDF tags should accurately describe your content. For example, “Read More" would be a poor subheading; “Read More About AudioEye’s Accessibility Solutions" is more descriptive and more useful for readers.

Missing Accessibility Permissions

Many PDFs limit user permissions to prevent people from editing or copying sensitive information. Unfortunately, this can be a bad practice for accessibility: Assistive technologies may need to copy content in order to convert it to a format that matches the user’s preferences. 

For example, screen readers technically copy text in order to convert it to audio. Some screen readers are registered with Adobe as “trusted agents,” which allows them to bypass security settings.

To create truly accessible documents, you’ll need to evaluate security controls and only use them when they’re absolutely essential. An accessibility partner can help you create a sustainable strategy.

Missing Alternative Descriptions

WCAG Success Criterion 1.1.1 requires that all non-text content presented to the user has a text alternative. This includes images, charts, and all other visual content.

If PDFs contain these elements, you should provide a text alternative that serves an equivalent purpose. Adobe Acrobat’s Set Alternative Text feature allows creators to quickly write and edit these descriptions.

Once again, accuracy is important — your alternative text should describe the image in simple, concise terms.

Low-Contrast Text

Color contrast refers to the difference in light between text (or another foreground element) and its background. 

Low-contrast text can impact people with color vision deficiencies (CVD) and other vision-related disabilities. WCAG Success Criterion 1.4.3 sets minimum contrast ratios for accessibility, and PDFs should meet these thresholds. 

Using Adobe Acrobat Pro to Troubleshoot PDF Accessibility Issues

Adobe Acrobat Pro has built-in tools that automate some essential accessibility tasks and provide instructions for manually adding tags.

If you need to ensure PDF accessibility at high volume (for instance, when delivering tax forms to employees or customers), you may need a more thorough approach to remediation. We’ll discuss potential solutions in the next section of this article. For individual documents, however, Adobe’s Action Wizard — also known as Batch Processing in earlier versions of Acrobat — can be useful.

To use Acrobat Pro’s accessibility features, follow these steps (last updated by Adobe on January 12, 2022).

  1. Select Tools > Action Wizard
  2. Select Make Accessible from the Actions List. 
  3. Select the PDF file you want to make accessible. You can add additional files and folders by selecting Add Files.
  4. Click Start and follow the prompts. 

When using any automated accessibility tool, remember that you’ll still need to review the output carefully. The best practice is to test your documents with a combination of automated and manual methods — and work with experienced remediation experts.

Document labeled PDF that is being scanned by a magnifying glass with the AudioEye icon

Testing Your PDFs for Accessibility

Acrobat Pro’s accessibility feature can identify many WCAG failures, but it isn’t perfect. That’s particularly true when you’re addressing issues that require human judgment or when you’re working with a large number of PDFs. 

AudioEye’s PDF accessibility remediation services can help you achieve ADA compliance in a cost-effective manner. Our experts evaluate content using PDF/UA-1 and WCAG Standards to identify and fix issues that affect real-world users. Your PDF is returned in an accessible format, ready for publication.

After remediation, your documents will have essential features that enhance accessibility for all users:

  • Searchable text.
  • Indications for titles, headers, and other important structural elements.
  • A predictable reading order that supports the user experience.
  • Readable fonts, appropriate color contrast, and other features that may not have been used during the creation of the document.

Every organization needs to consider accessibility from the first stages of document creation. AudioEye provides comprehensive solutions for meeting established standards — and reaching a much wider audience in the process. Read more about our document and PDF remediation services.

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