PDF Accessibility Should Be a Priority

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The Portable Document Format, or PDF, was introduced by Adobe Systems in 1993. Its purpose was to make it easier to share electronic documents, especially those that contained visual material or special formatting. A PDF document would look identical to everyone who opened it, no matter what kind of computer, device or software program was used to create it, view it or print it. The fonts, graphics, margins and layout would always display in the same way.

PDF Accessibility on Samsung phone

PDFs are in widespread use today. At the 2015 PDF Technical Conference, Adobe Systems’ Vice President of Engineering, Phil Ydens, estimated that about 2.5 trillion new PDF documents are created per year1. That’s close to 350 PDFs per person on the planet. The international PDF Association has stated that the number may actually be four times higher than Ydens’ estimate.

PDFs Can Spell Problems for Customers with Disabilities

PDF documents and forms may be popular, but unfortunately, they are not usable by people with disabilities – not unless certain barriers have been removed. That’s why it’s essential to make sure that PDF accessibility is a top priority when creating or distributing these documents.

Disabilities affect 19 percent of the population. Ydens acknowledged at the conference that not enough PDF documents are currently following an accessibility standard. People with disabilities “need to be able to participate in the digital world,” he noted. “We need to step up our game.”

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Since the look of a PDF document is essentially locked in, this format has great advantages. It’s useful for certified or legal documents like contracts, or publications such as e-books, because the contents are controlled and can’t be easily changed.

It’s also a popular format for documents that have a lot of design elements, such restaurant menus or weekly sale flyers, because they’ll always display in the same way no matter how or where they’re opened. Since PDFs are universal, a Mac user can share them with a Windows user, and vice versa, and they can be downloaded from websites.

Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to having all of a document’s attributes locked in place. If those attributes were not initially coded to be accessible, then any barriers are going to stay in place. No manner of assistive technology or software will allow people with disabilities to read them easily. To these clients and customers, PDF might as well stand for “Problem Document Format.”

PDF Barriers Often Come with the Package

When a PDF isn’t purposely created to be accessible to everyone, several kinds of barriers are often automatically included. For instance, if there is an image in the document that did not have alternative text (alt-text) added to it, then a person using a screen reader will not be able to discern what’s in the image. If the parts of the document were not set in proper sequence, then the person won’t be able to read the document in proper order or tab through the form fields. If an area of text was scanned, then it won’t be readable by assistive technology at all, since it’s essentially an image instead of words.

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There are many settings and situations in which people with disabilities can be confronted with inaccessible PDFs. Perhaps they’ve downloaded a user manual they can’t read with their screen reader, or a form they can’t fill out using only a keyboard. Perhaps they can’t access a train schedule, phone bill, bank statement, events calendar or terms and conditions document. It’s frustrating, and it’s also a violation of their right, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to not be given the same level of customer service as everyone else.

Why You Should Be Aiming for Accessibility

That’s not to say that PDFs should be avoided. The features that make them appealing – such as being shareable across different computer platforms and devices – are useful whether or not you have a disability. But whenever a new public-facing PDF is created, it should be done to an accessible standard. If it hasn’t been, then it should be remediated as quickly as possible.

Improving PDF accessibility doesn’t enhance only the experience of customers with disabilities. In many ways, it makes your content more usable by people who don’t have disabilities. For instance, anyone who tries to display your PDF on a small-sized screen, such as that of a mobile phone, will be able to see it properly if the document has been structured in the proper order. Anyone who prefers to use the keyboard instead of a mouse to jump from one form field to the next – yes, there are a great many of us – will have a smoother experience if the pre-set tab order follows the proper sequence.

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Painless Steps to Better PDFs

Fortunately, there are already standards out there. The international PDF Association released a standard for accessible PDFs in 2012 and provided an update in 2014. The World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative, which publishes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), has issued a set of PDF Techniques to ensure that PDFs are fully accessible and follow WCAG. Adhering to these guidelines is a way to make certain that you are complying with the ADA and other laws such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

A few tools are available from Adobe to assist with PDF accessibility, but they have limitations. For instance, Acrobat DC Pro, its software for manipulating PDF documents, has a “Make Accessible” option, which will prompt you to take action if it finds certain barriers like images without alt-text, or missing titles. It has limitations, however. It isn’t guaranteed to find all barriers, and it won’t be capable of automatically fixing all problems without your input and judgment.

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Acrobat DC Pro’s “Accessibility Checker” feature will scan your document for a few specific accessibility features and issue a report, but it can produce false positives – it will flag areas that are not problematic – and it won’t provide guidance for items that require manual checking.

If you don’t personally have expertise in PDF accessibility, consult with a firm that is qualified to help. Otherwise, you can end up wasting time and resources without any guarantee that you will successfully find and remove all PDF barriers. An expert can ensure that your documents are fully accessible to people with disabilities, while enhancing the usability of PDFs for all your customers and clients, whether or not they have a disability.

An Innovative Solution

eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.


  1. 2.5 trillion new PDF documents are created per year PDF Association, 2016.

What to do next

We can help you meet WCAG standards and maintain ADA and AODA compliance:

  1. Connect with us today to learn more about our comprehensive approach to digital accessibility, including our automated and manual auditing capabilities and extensive range of managed services.
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