Best Practices for Creating ADA Accessible PDF Documents


What is a PDF?

Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format used to present and exchange documents reliably, independent of software, hardware, or operating system. Invented by Adobe, PDF is now an open standard maintained by the International Organization for Standardization. PDFs can contain links and buttons, form fields, audio, video, and business logic. They can also be signed electronically and are easily viewed using free Acrobat Reader DC software.


Creating accessible PDF documents is very important because it makes sure that these documents can be easily accessed by anybody regardless of abilities. Sometimes when creating a PDF such as scanning a document does not allow for an accessible document.



Mac OS X


In order to make a PDF more accessible, there are many programs that allow you to have accessible PDF documents. For example, Microsoft Word allows you to convert a Word doc to PDF using built in features which maintain accessiblity. Please see this article on how to export a Microsoft Office document as a PDF.

  • Check accessibility: The Full Check tool verifies whether the document conforms to accessibility standards, such as PDF/UA and WCAG 2.0.

    • Report accessibility status: The Accessibility Report summarizes the findings of the accessibility check. It contains links to tools and documentation that assist in fixing problems.

You should avoid using documents that have been scanned, if at all possible. A scanned document is actually one large image per page and a screen reader will see this as a blank page. Scanned documents are not accessible to screen readers without additional work that is often extensive. Instead of printing out and scanning a document and trying to create a PDF with it, it’s best to create a PDF directly from a source electronic document (like a Word DOC or XLS file).

Other ways to make a PDF more accessible include:

  • Create Clear Titles: Straightforward PDF titles are key for achieving clarity in your content. The user is going to first need to find the document on your website. Align the title of the document with the type of information that is included in the PDF file. Ask yourself, what is the purpose of this file? What type of information would a customer need from this document? For example, if the document is a business loan application, then a good file title is quite simply Business Loan Application.

  • Optimize Content for Screen Readers: Many users who have visual disabilities will use a screen reader to access the information in a PDF document. Therefore, it’s important to use readable language and steer away from acronyms, symbols or shortcuts. While a screen reader can read those, it may not be clear to the individual listening. After the document is found, the user will need to find the appropriate section within the document to fulfill their needs. Look beyond the title of the document and into the headings. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance also requires your content to be distinguishable.

  • Define the Language: Another ADA conformance guideline is to define the language of the PDF. This is not a step most PDF authors would routinely take, but is a simple setting change adjustment within each document’s properties.

  • Add ALT Text for Images: Many PDF documents have images but unfortunately a screen reader cannot see an image unless it has descriptive ALT text. If there is an image, figure or diagram in the PDF that contributes meaningful content, then it is important that there is ALT text provided to describe that image or figure.

See this link for added information: PDF Accessibility

For more help, please contact ITS at or 718-862-7973.

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Article ID: 34631
Tue 8/1/17 10:10 AM
Thu 7/23/20 3:04 PM