Accessibility best practices: PDFs


When creating accessible content we need to ask, is a PDF the best format for this information?  Most of the time HTML is a better option.  HTML is more accessible, and easier to edit in the future.  PDFs were designed for printing not for presenting on a website. Forms and other documents that you are expect are going to be printed out are great candidates for the PDF format.

The second question when creating and accessible PDF is, how are you creating the document? Usually when people are creating a PDF they are scanning a document, or exporting from a word document. We will be exploring both routes as we create accessible PDFs. As a note, we will be using Adobe Acrobat Professional X, and Microsoft Word 2010 on a PC platform. Many of these accessibility features are available in previous versions of these software packages.

Scanning a document

We will first look at scanning a document. When you scan in a document, you are just creating an image of the text.   To make the text accessible you will need to run the document through an OCR program. The Library is equipped with two Scannx Book ScanCenters which are integrated with the ABBYY FineReader Engine for Optical Character Recognition (OCR) accuracy. The FineReader Technology takes the scnned image of books or documents and makes the machine readable in several common formats including PDF, searchable PDF and word. 

There are some free applications where you can OCR text, but the program we will look at is Adobe Acrobat Professional.

  • image illustrating how to save an accessible pdf
  • First test whether your document is accessible. Try and select the text in your document. If you can’t select the text by dragging your cursor over it, your document is probably not readable by a screen reader
  • Open your scanned document in Acrobat
  • Select Document >OCR Text Recognition> Recognize text Using OCR
  • Save your document as a PDF. Your document will now be accessible to screen readers.



Exporting a PDF from a word document

When creating a PDF from a word document there are a few things to be mindful of.  First, how are you laying out a the document?  Are you inserting text boxes? Are you creating multiple columns? These are things that affect the way a screen reader will read through a document.  Second, there are a few steps we must follow while exporting the document to ensure that document will be read by a screen reader.

Setting up your document

Saving your document

Testing your document in a screen reader