Why PDF Accessibility Matters: Understanding the Impact on Users with Disabilities

Why PDF Accessibility Matters: Understanding the Impact on Users with Disabilities

Published: August 2, 2023

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    PDF documents are vital for providing information to users, but unfortunately, they create some barriers for users with disabilities by not taking care of PDF Accessibility. And with 1 in 4 adult Americans having a disability, 25% of your potential customers cannot access your web content.

    While the visually impaired are most affected, inaccessible content may also affect those with mobile or hearing disabilities. This is why the ADA (American Disability Act) and Section 508 focus on making life easier for people with disabilities.

    The laws state that all places of public accommodation should be accessible to all users with disabilities, including schools, transportation, and websites. And the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) that ensures all types of web content is accessible, including PDFs.

    While creating fully compliant web content with the ADA and WCAG standards is challenging, PDFs pose a bigger challenge as they are complex and inaccessible.

    It requires a deep understanding of the WCAG and ADA, time and effort to make them compliant. This article answers basic questions about PDF accessibility tools, with tips to make them ADA-compliant. And if you need help doing this, we at ADA Site Compliance can help.

    We are the #1 source for all ADA compliance issues and can conduct a digital accessibility audit. Our team of accessibility experts knows all the legal and regulatory requirements for ADA compliance and will identify the mistakes to remediate your PDF.

    What exactly is an accessible PDF Document?

    An accessible PDF refers to a PDF format for files that anyone blind or with visual or cognitive impairments can access, understand, and use. In the case of users with disabilities, they use the help of assistive technologies to understand PDFs.

    Creating accessible PDF documents is not easy, but not impossible either. It is a complex process that is done using specific software. The good news is that you can convert multiple source files into PDF files.

    Inaccessible PDF files comprise a text image created by scanning hard copies or electronic documents. It is possible to convert them into accessible text with the help of certain software, but this is better left to the experts.

    Characteristics of Accessible PDF Documents

    There are some pre-defining characteristics of PDF file accessibility:

    • Searchable text

      It is possible to search PDF files with text and then select and copy the text. However, scanned text images in the file without searchable text are inaccessible to assistive technologies.

    • Interactive form fields

      Form fields in PDFs must be interactive enough for visitors with a computer to fill out. A fixed tab order makes it easy for users with assistive technology software to move between form fields. The forms should also be labeled to prevent errors and have no time-out feature because some users may take longer to fill the form.

    • Navigation assistive technology

      Accessible PDF files help with navigation through aids like proper links, a defined tab layout, headings, and a table of contents. It makes it easy for users with disabilities as they do not have to read the entire document. Besides, creating bookmarks with the help of document headings also provides easy keyboard access without having to depend on the mouse.

    • Security with a permit for assistive technologies

      Printing, copying, editing, extracting, or adding comments to some PDF files may be challenging. Accessible PDF text protects the document content and can be read by screen readers.

    • Structure tags for proper reading order

      An accessible PDF reading order is laid out using proper structure tags. The tags help identify the sections, tables, and paragraphs, making the file accessible to users with screen readers. Document structure tags also help change the document size and flow for easy reading across other mobile equipment.

    • Alternative text descriptions

      Users with hearing and visual impairments find recognizing various features in the file relatively difficult. Accessible PDF files have alternative text with better descriptions than link text like video or audio elements.

    Starts with Accessible Documents

    A PDF File is a destination file created from some other native document format and is available in a portable format. Usually, a word processing or desktop publishing application creates and then exports them as PDF documents.

    The native document applications have multiple features supporting accessibility. They include defining structural headings, data tables and setting document properties like titles.

    Most Adobe desktop publishing applications and other word-processing applications like Microsoft Word support them. Accessible native documents make it easier to convert the document into an accessible PDF file.

    How to create PDF files with accessibility features

    There are two essential things to create accessible PDFs from source files. Missing one of these steps can lead to inefficient document accessibility.

    These two steps are:

    • The source document should be made using relevant software applications and the best accessibility practices
    • The file should be exported to PDF while maintaining its original accessibility features.

    Suppose you have an existing inaccessible PDF file and do not have access to the source file. The solution here lies in file conversion with specific software like Adobe Acrobat Pro.

    It is also possible to remediate a PDF file from inaccessible source code files like a Word file. However, the process is time-consuming and requires some expertise.

    Determine the Accessibility Path for each PDF Document

    It is possible to generate PDF documents in many ways, using the help of various applications and for different uses. Ensuring it is accessible entirely depends on understanding the nature or purpose of each PDF document.

    There are multiple tools Acrobat Pro offers that help authors evaluate and fix accessibility issues as quickly as possible. And the Adobe Acrobat Pro Accessibility Guide provides details to assess existing PDF files for accessibility.

    Authors follow these procedures in the recommended order to systematically analyze a PDF file. To make the PDF document accessible, the author must systematically rule out or confirm some characteristics.

    Proper Formatting

    Formatting plays an important role in determining the readability of scanned documents. That is why it is essential to ensure font sizes are simple and consistent while rewriting documents. Separating large sections of text into sections using headings or sub-headers only renders the text easier to find.

    Make use of descriptive link text

    Ensure all link texts in the document clearly explain the hyperlink content. Using generic phrases like ‘click on this’ for link text does not prove helpful to users reading the text with the help of screen readers or assistive technology.

    The text should instead indicate what is in store when the reader clicks on it. Remember that files are accessible only if all users can understand and use the document content.

    Use more clear and concise language

    It is always better to avoid using complicated language that will only create confusion and misunderstandings. Instead, the language used in the remedial process should be simple and accessible for all users to efficiently and effectively understand.

    Benefits of Making Accessible PDFs

    Of course, the prime and most important benefit of improving PDF accessibility is protecting businesses and individuals from lawsuits. However, this is not the only benefit. There are other reasons why accessibility should be a priority for website and PDF file owners:

    • Creates a better user experience

      Accessible PDFs create a better user experience to the user. Well-formatted documents with the proper headings and subheadings placed in a logical hierarchy always make things easier for website visitors. It is also a good practice to update your content while reformatting PDFs to ensure it’s still relevant.

    • Connect with more customers

      Accessible documents help you build better connections with more customers. That is why you must ensure the PDF user guides or specifications accompanying any product you sell are accessible. Your customers connect with you as you make things easier for them to understand.

    • Has a competitive edge

      There is so much competition online that businesses are always looking for some competitive edge that sets them apart. Providing a user-friendly and inclusive experience does just that. It gives you a competitive edge over competitors as you have worked at removing barriers to people with disabilities.

    • Makes your website Google-friendly

      PDFs may be individual documents on your website. However, Google bots tend to crawl, or at least attempt to crawl PDFs. As bots cannot read inaccessible PDFs, ensuring the PDFs are accessible helps Google gather more of your website information.

      This, in turn, helps increase your website visibility through improved search engine results.

    • Increased traffic and potential customers

      As your website visibility increases search engine results, creating accessible PDFs and documents also helps to increase your website traffic. The increased traffic increases the number of potential customers visiting your website.

      You thus also risk losing business because of inaccessibility and not having a web-compliant website or documents.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Why is PDF accessibility important?

    Accessible PDFs are universally easy to use and meet established accessibility standards. They let more people view, read, or interact with the document, like with the help of LCD magnifiers or filling up forms without a keyboard.

    Why is accessibility important for people with disabilities?

    Accessibility is essential for users with disabilities because it ensures everyone can perceive, understand, navigate, or interact with electronic information. Cognitive, visual, auditory, physical, speech, and neurological disabilities are considered while implementing the required accessibility measures.

    This turns everyone into active and contributing members of the digital world.

    Are PDFs good for accessibility?

    Yes, PDFs are good for web accessibility, as screen readers can easily read accessible PDFs, making it easy for everyone to access them, including users with disabilities. With PDFS being the most prevalent format for digital documents and most websites or intranets having them, inaccessible PDFs can hamper web compliance.

    What makes it easier for users with difficulties to read PDFs?

    Two necessary accessibility standards help establish and assess PDF accessibility. They are WCAG and PDF/UA. They offer multiple recommendations that increase accessibility to people with disabilities. Following these guidelines ensure your content is more usable and accessible to your users.

    You must conduct two elementary tests to determine if the document is inaccessible. Passing them may not render them fully accessible, but failing them does indicate that the entire document is not accessible.

    These tests are checking to see if:

    • The file contains a text image

      Selecting the text in the file lets you find out if the file contains a text image. The PDF is an image if you can’t select the text when you click on it and highlight the entire page. Running alt text in the PDF through the optical character recognition program remediates this.

    • The file does not have tags

      Tags are an essential part of creating accessible documents. The tags let assistive technologies identify PDF content like tables, images, and paragraphs. While a properly converted Word file has most elements tagged in the proper reading order, a document is inaccessible if you find the text ‘No Tags available’ when you open the tag pane.

    How to assess a PDF for accessibility

    Assessing PDFs for accessibility is not a one-time process. It is a continuous process where more time, tools, and other applications invested in its testing make it more an accessible document. Besides, the more accessible you want it to be, the more you must invest in knowledge to fix the problem. Generally, it calls for expert assistance and training for a complete and thorough remediation.

    You generally do not need any specialized training to achieve basic PDF accessibility features. You will need an expert or some additional training for thorough document remediation.


    So, it is evident that anyone with an online presence should have all their digital assets accessible to all users. This includes any PDFs you may have on or off your website.

    Prioritizing digital accessibility is very important these days, without which you risk alienating potential customers and facing litigation. And as you digitize your digital content, you must know the underlying legal and policy parameters involved, like the importance and need for PDF accessibility so that all users can have equal access to it.

    Do not worry if you have PDFs but do not know how to make them ADA-compliant. We at ADA Site Compliance can help. We are the #1 source for all ADA website compliance issues and can make your PDFs accessible to all users.

    Our team of accessibility experts is always at hand to check the accessibility and perform the appropriate remediation of your PDF files so that you can focus on doing what you do best.

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