Toggle menu

14 January 2021

How do I make my PDF accessible?

A 5-step guide to enhance your digital documents with Adobe Acrobat

So you’ve been asked to make a document “accessible” but what does that mean? And why is it important?

Many businesses invest time and money into creating engaging visual communications. However, not all designs are optimised for people with disabilities and even mild vision impairments. Accessible PDFs take the well-known PDF format a step further, allowing them to be read with screen readers or assistive technologies providing universal access.

Why is it important?

While the PDF format is one of the most common file types for reports and forms, it is essentially unreadable for many people with disabilities or vision impairments. Simply put, an untagged PDF is unreadable on assistive devices — it’s like searching a dictionary that is not in alphabetical order.

As businesses update their corporate responsibility guidelines, governments are legislating universal access and even teenagers are embracing the addition of captions to their TikToks.

What’s involved when creating accessible PDFs?

Unfortunately, there is no magic button when it comes to accessibility. Optimising documents is currently a manual process. It takes a significant amount of time and care to implement and comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Adobe Acrobat is the industry-leading software to create PDFs and enable them to be accessible, but you will need the paid-version to make your PDFs. However, anyone can read them using Adobe Acrobat Reader.

You may have heard tagging the text in a PDF is enough to make it accessible. However, there are more considerations for full accessibility including:

  • — Colour contrast
  • — Logical reading order
  • — Alternate text for images and graphics
  • — Bookmarks for longer documents
  • — Document information

Can’t I just use the auto-tag feature?

We can see the temptation to hit auto-tag in Adobe Acrobat and call it a day. However, the messy result means you may spend just as much time (if not more) repairing the document as you would have manually tagging. The problem with auto-tag is that it doesn’t (yet) take into account the context of the document and will incorrectly tag heading levels and reading order. Also, key functions like alternate text for images cannot be automated. This means you will have to make manual additions anyway. Creating a good quality accessible PDF takes some time to correctly set it up.

So what steps do I need to take to create an accessible PDF?

Now that you have a run-down of what accessibility is and why it is important, here’s a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the process of creating an accessible PDF using Adobe Acrobat.



Design and artwork setup

Like all good design it’s important to consider what fonts and colours to use to make your document attractive and a joyful experience to read. To ensure optimal visibility, foreground and background colour combinations must pass the guidelines for contrast accessibility.

Tip: You can check colour contrast ratios online or install a program to your desktop like Colour Contrast Analyser.

With your design all done and ready to export to PDF, there are a few more actions that will make your life easier when tagging. Elements in a layered graphic will be read individually, so it’s best to flatten composite images onto a single layer and save vectors as high res PNG files. This avoids the creation of many unnecessary tags which create an awful reading experience. Also, ensure all text is live on the page allowing for selection in the following steps. With your PDF prepped and primed, the next step is tagging.




Accessible PDFs are like invisible road maps that give clear instructions to navigate a document. Tags are the road signs to indicate where you are and what is next. Each page must be tagged according to the hierarchy of text, images and background artefacts. Adding alternate text to photos and graphics translates visual information into verbal cues. The captions should be short, simple yet accurate and descriptive.

In Acrobat, select View > Tools and open the Accessibility panel. From here select Reading Order to open up the pop-up box. In the Reading Order pop-up ensure Show Page Content Groups and Structure Types are ticked. Working on each page, click and drag to make a selection and tag the content accordingly ie Heading 1 to Heading 6, Text/Paragraph, Figure etc. When tagging figures, make sure it is selected and right-click to Edit Alternate Text.

Tip: The Reading Order Tool doesn’t support the undo/redo feature and can be a little temperamental, not tagging elements as you would expect. We highly anticipate Adobe’s fix for this! We suggest saving a new version after every few pages so you don’t lose all your hard work, should the program crash. And keep a copy of the original file, just in case.



Set reading order

Once all elements are tagged it’s time to set the reading order. The reading order is important as it guides the user to read the document in a logical way. Unfortunately, reading order is not automatically set during the tagging process and must be manually re-ordered and checked.

In the same Reading Order pop-up, tick Page Content Order to show the order number of each tagged element. To make edits, click the Show Order Panel button and in the left hand panel drag contents into the most logical order.

Tip: Keep an eye out for any content moving or disappearing from the page as you reorder. Again, saving new versions is recommended.



Using the Tags panel

The Tags panel (View > Show/Hide > Navigation Panes > Tags) comes into play for advanced tagging of tables and lists. This is useful for readers as the comprehensive tagging indicates table headers and cell information and items of bulleted or numbered lists.

For tables, the Tags panel allows you to assign each Table Row with either the Table Headers or Table Data Cells. Lists should be tagged to show the start of each List Item, its Label (bullet, number, etc) and List Body containing the text.

Tip: It’s best practice to check that the order of all tags in this panel follows the same sequence as the Reading Order.



Full accessibility check

You’ve made it to the end and now you can run a full Accessibility Check (Tools > Accessibility > Accessibility Check) to troubleshoot errors that can only be fixed or passed manually. Some manual inputs include:

  • — Document Information: adding the title and author in the Properties
  • — Logical Reading Order and Colour Contrast: manually checked and passed
  • — Tagged Annotations: tag unmarked links by doing a Find and Tag Elements search in the Contents panel
  • — Bookmarks: documents over 21 pages need to have bookmarks that parallel the document structure, or the Accessibility Check will fail

You can right click errors and select Explain to better understand how to resolve any problems.

Once your Accessibility Check passes, you can download the report to vouch for the quality of your PDF. Re-select Accessibility Check and at the top of the pop-up box tick Create Accessibility Report. Choose where you would like to save the report and select Start Checking.

Here are some examples of good quality accessible documents you can use for reference:

If you open the Accessibility panel and go through the tools in the Navigation Pane on the left, you will see the additional work the designer has taken to ensure the PDFs are highly accessible.

It’s never been more important to be inclusive and make your content available to as many users online as possible. We have invested in future-proofing our design practise with accessibility training for all staff. Please get in touch to discuss how we can boost your communications with accessible design.

Previous storyIs remote working more productive?

 See all

Next storyOnline courses for design thinkers