Resources » Working With PDFs (Advanced) » How Do I Make a PDF Accessible Online?

By reading this post, you’ll be able to understand the difference between an accessible PDF vs PDF, what an ADA compliance means for PDFs, and how to create compliant PDFs.

illustration of digital accessibillity for an article about accessible pdfs online

PDFs are a very popular file format for sharing documents over the web due to their compatibility with any device. In other words, the formatting settings of a PDF are preserved between devices — everyone who opens a PDF will see the same thing. Right?

But what if someone is colorblind or has a disability that makes it difficult to read your PDF the way that it’s formatted? This is where PDF accessibility is important. So, what does it mean for a PDF to be accessible? 

Making a PDF accessible generally means that anyone can understand the information it contains, including those with disabilities. A highly accessible PDF is either easily legible or readable using certain tools that individuals with disabilities utilize, such as screen readers for blind or visually impaired people. PDF creators should recognize that if their documents will be publicly hosted online, or widely shared, their PDF should be as accessible as possible so as many people as possible can understand it. 

This article will outline everything about PDF accessibility. This includes what makes a PDF accessible, how to make a PDF accessible, and then how to check if a PDF that you’ve created is accessible. 

ADA Compliance and PDFs

ADA compliance may or may not apply to your organization. It applies to public buildings, state and local governments, and businesses that fall under public accommodations. We’re not experts in ADA compliance, so you’re better to consult an expert in the area who can tell you if you must adhere to Americans With Disabilities Act. Technically, the accessibility of documents is governed by Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and Section 508 Standards.

Regardless, people search for ADA compliance and PDFs because they want to make their online documents accessible to people with disabilities. So, we’re not covering how to make web and digital properties comply with government regulations; for that, look for an accessibility consultant. 

What Makes a PDF Accessible?

There’s no single software that you can use to make PDFs accessible. Rather, PDFs that are accessible follow certain guidelines to ensure they’re legible by everyone. There are a few different PDF accessibility guidelines that are outlined in the Web Standard: PDF Accessibility Requirements. We’ll give some general tips to make PDFs more accessible later on, but these requirements cover a lot more than making PDFs readable for those with disabilities. The web standards apply to websites, applications, mobile apps, and digital properties. That said, these guidelines acknowledge that PDFs aren’t immediately accessible by everyone, including those with disabilities. 

An accessible PDF will be tagged with specific metadata that marks it as accessible. For example, a PDF will have paragraph breaks, headings, and sections marked so that a screen reader software can recognize them. Pictures will have metadata descriptions so that visually impaired individuals will still understand the information that a picture is trying to convey. 

How Do I Make My PDF Accessible? 

The best step would be to review the Web Standard: PDF Accessibility Requirements and the general Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to understand what it means for a piece of web content to be accessible. There are a few general tips to follow so that you, a PDF creator, can make your PDFs more accessible. 

  • Best practice is to only share PDFs that have been converted from Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or other character-based applications — not a scanned picture. Text in a scanned picture will not be legible by a screen reader, since it’s considered a picture. 
  • Add alt-text for images, graphs, and tables, so the information is easy to understand without having to see it. To do this, add the alt text through the original program that you created the document in — Word, Google Docs, Excel, PowerPoint, etc. Right-click the image, and select View Alt Text.
  • Follow color accessibility guidelines. For example, do not use color and only color to differentiate certain vital information in a graph. Consider using patterns or labels so that anyone can notice the differences between data points. 
  • If your PDF has a form field, ensure that a user can tab through the fields using only a keyboard, in case they cannot use a mouse. 

To make these changes, you will need to use a PDF editor such as PDF.Live’s editor. The PDF.Live editor lets you add forms and add text, such as image captions, so they are more accessible to people with disabilities. 

For some specific accessibility guidelines, such as the color requirements, you may need to edit the original version of your document in a document editor to change the colors of certain elements. 

How Do I Check If My PDF Is Accessible?

There are some free tools available online for checking if your PDF is accessible. These tools may be plugins for PDF readers, or separate programs entirely. Some paid tools, such as Adobe Acrobat Pro DC, will let you add certain accessibility features such as metadata about the title, author, and date of the PDF. If you plan to host a PDF publicly or share it with a large audience, we recommend checking PDF/UA, a nonprofit that offers a free accessibility checker (requires download). 

You can also do manual checks yourself, which isn’t that hard. Using a manual method, you review a PDF accessibility checklist to ensure your PDF is mostly accessible to users. WebAIM has a guide on setting up accessible PDFs in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC.

Alternatively, you can review the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to review how to make certain elements of your PDF accessible. For example, these guidelines include how to set up colors in documents and tags for headings. 

What does an accessible PDF look like? 

About the same as any other PDF. Someone who isn’t utilizing a text reader or isn’t aware of accessible PDFs won’t notice any difference in the PDF. There’s a good chance that you’ve read a PDF that’s been set up for accessibility without even knowing it!