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Why PDF Accessibility is Important For Higher Education

Published: March 4, 2022

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    Higher education institutions nowadays focus on producing a diverse student body that includes non-disabled students and students with disabilities. However, this is better said than done; it’s not that easy to create a truly accessible campus for students with disabilities. Of course, it’s not something impossible, but it’s a task requiring leadership, planning, and commitment from the education body’s side. And most importantly, institutions should know and understand the internationally accepted accessibility laws (for PDF/websites, etc.), guidelines, and federal requirements.

    According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11% of undergrad students have some disability. The number increases to 14.5% if it includes the students of Vocational and Technical Schools, and to 16% if it includes students aged above 30.

    So it’s not surprising to learn that there has been an increasing number of ADA lawsuits filed against colleges and universities. And most of the time, the reasons for the lawsuits were inaccessible websites, apps, online courses, textbooks, or classroom materials and the absence of necessary accommodations.

    There has also been an increase in the number of complaints filed with the Office for Civil rights (OCR) of the United States Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice about digital accessibility, technologies, and online delivery systems.

    Colleges and universities thus need to be careful while selecting and procuring digital learning materials and technologies. They also have to be aware of their legal obligations to ensure their students participate and learn from these new accessible learning opportunities.

    The complaints have, in turn, led to many voluntary agreements drawn with the targeted universities to take the necessary steps to improve their internet institutional accessibility practices.

    And that’s why many colleges and universities had to pay some hefty fines and now face the task of meeting accessibility needs. The institutions could have avoided all this by providing accessible instructional materials in electronic format. And emphasizing PDF accessibility for higher education courses in the first place.

    An overview of accessible instructional materials and technology

    Digital accessibility refers to the concept of designing electronic and information material everyone can use and access, including those with disabilities. In other words, when it relates to higher education, it includes teaching material that is fully accessible to everyone visually, aurally, and tactilely.

    Generally, digital accessibility refers to the needs of visitors depending on specially designed technology to complete computer and mobile device tasks. And these devices and software applications are called access technology that provides students with disabilities equal employment, education, and opportunity in major life activities.

    Today, educators, colleges, and universities have a legal responsibility to provide accessible platforms and instructional materials to all their students. Besides, accessible materials like PDF files ensure all students can participate in and benefit through equal learning opportunities.

    Correctly structured learning management system

    For example, blind students or those with print disabilities use the help of screen reading software to show in Braille whatever sighted students see. However, for the screen reader to convert text into speech or Braille materials, the educational institution should first create a learning management system, site, or document, according to the software’s standards and procedures.

    Screen reader users will not be able to access or utilize the content on websites and learning management systems that aren’t created according to these accessibility measures.

    Higher education laws

    Section 504 of the American Rehabilitation act is one of the many higher education laws. According to this law, people with disabilities should not:

    • Be denied benefits
    • Be excluded from participating in programs
    • Face discrimination of any form under any program or activity receiving National federation financial assistance.

    And while the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) focuses on the accessibility of physical locations, Title III is clear that one of the ‘Places of Accommodation is “Places of Education.’ So it means that schools, courses, and examinations should be accessible to even people with disabilities.
    To be protected under Section 504, students must qualify and meet all academic and technical standards for admission and participation in education programs and activities. They must also have a disability like:

    • A physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities like seeing, hearing, concentrating, reading, and thinking
    • Proof of such an impairment
    • Being regarded as suffering from such an impairment

    You should by now know that your website, electronic assets, and educational documents should all be accessible. And there’s no doubt that the campus will have and need a lot of records. Your eLearning courses may also contain many PDF files, making you wonder what is and how to ensure PDF accessibility. Read on to learn more about planning for digital accessibility and creating accessible instructional materials.

    Planning For Digital / PDF Accessibility For Higher Education

    It is not easy for an educational institution to meet legal obligations and equal access to all students, staff, and faculty. It takes lots of time and commitment on all levels, requiring a massive culture change.

    The easiest step to prevent disability discrimination lies in having proper procurement plans that permit purchasing technology that meets WCAG 2.0 guidelines. Once an institution adopts accessibility procedures and policies, it creates a blueprint for a truly accessible campus.

    Third-party consultants play a significant role in assisting colleges and universities in making their digital campuses accessible.

    What is an accessible PDF?

    An accessible PDF is a PDF file that anyone blind, visually, or cognitively impaired can access, use, and understand. These files enable students with disabilities to use the help of assistive technology to access and understand the files.
    Examples of software applications they may use to understand the files include:

    • Screen magnifiers
    • Screen readers
    • Speech recognition software
    • Alternative input devices
    • Text-to-speech software
    • Refreshable Braille screens

    Unfortunately, it is not easy to create accessible PDFs. It is a complex and variable process requiring a source document to start with and the help of software like Adobe Acrobat Pro. Besides, you can generate so many source files into PDF files.

    And this source document can be a Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint, or Adobe InDesign file. Sometimes the PDF file may be images of the text created by scanning hard copy documents.

    However, these image-based files are completely inaccessible because they have first to be converted into text using optical character recognition (OCR) software to become accessible. Thus, fixing problems in PDF files requires someone trained and efficient with a high level of expertise.

    How to create PDF with accessibility features For Higher Education

    Two things are necessary to create accessible PDFs from a source file.

    • First, make the source document using a relevant software application and all accessibility best practices.
    • Secondly, the file should be exported to PDF while preserving the original file’s accessibility features.

    Missing out on these two steps will result in inefficient document accessibility.

    There may be cases where you have an existing inaccessible PDF file. And to make things worse, you don’t have access to the source file. In this case, the solution lies in using some specific software like Adobe Acrobat Pro to convert the file.

    However, remediating a PDF file from an inaccessible source code file like a Word file takes much more time and expertise than creating an accessible word file and exporting it as a PDF.

    How to assess a PDF for accessibility

    Assessing PDFs for accessibility is a continuous process where the more accessible you want it, the more time, tools, and other applications you need to invest in its testing. Besides, you will also have to invest more knowledge in fixing the problem and require more expert assistance and training to achieve complete remediation.

    You may not require much-specialized training to achieve basic PDF accessibility features. However, you may need expert help or additional training to remediate document accessibility thoroughly.

    Accessibility standards

    Two necessary standards help establish and assess PDF accessibility: WCAG and PDF/UA.
    They offer a wide range of recommendations to make content accessible to people with disabilities. The primary benefit of following these guidelines is that content is more usable and accessible to students.
    To make your PDF document accessible, you need to test it to determine its required remediation. Two basic tests help you decide if the document is inaccessible. While passing them doesn’t guarantee full accessibility, failing them does indicate document inaccessibility.

    These two tests are:

    1. The file contains a text image.

    You can find out if the file contains a text image by selecting the text in the file. You know the PDF is an image if the text isn’t selectable when the entire page highlights upon clicking on it. You can remediate this by running the PDF through the optical character recognition program.

    2. The file does not have any tags.

    Tags are essential additions to accessible instructional materials because it allows assistive technologies to identify PDF content like images, tables, and paragraphs. For example, an adequately converted Word file will have most elements tagged correctly in the proper reading order. You know your document isn’t accessible if you find the text ‘No Tags available’ upon opening the Tag pane.

    Characteristics of Accessible PDF files

    Some characteristics determine PDF file accessibility. They include:

      • Searchable text

        PDF files with text can be searched using the standard Adobe Reader ‘search’ functionality and thus selected and copied from the PDF. As mentioned above, scanned text images render a document inaccessible as they do not contain searchable text that assistive technology software can read or extract.

      • Interactive labeled form fields

        The PDF may contain interactive forms people fill out using a computer. However, it should have interactive form fields where visitors can enter values into the form field to access the documents.

        Interactive PDF forms also have a defined tab order. Students who depend on assistive technology can logically use the Tab key to move from one field or interactive control. Besides, the forms should provide identification, proper completion tips, prevent errors, and not time out because some people may need more time.

      • PDF Navigational Aids

        An accessible PDF file should contain navigational aids like links, table of contents, headings, and preset tab order. These navigation aids help students use the document without reading through the entire document. The institutions can also create bookmarks using document headings to access the keyboard without relying on the mouse.

    • Language and title specifications

      It’s always better to specify the document language in the PDF file so that screen reader users can switch to the present language. It, in turn, provides students with the correct pronunciation of content in various languages. The presence of document titles lets students locate and identify the document sections with substantially equivalent ease.

    • Security with assistive technologies permit

      Some PDF file authors do not let students print, copy, extract, edit or add comments to the text. An accessible PDF text, however, protects the document content and does not interfere when the screen reader converts on-screen text to speech or Braille.

    • Presence of structure tags and proper reading order

      Accessible files should have structure tags defining the reading order and identifying headings, sections, paragraphs, tables, and other page elements of the electronic book. It helps tools like a screen reader and other text-to-speech tools read the document’s text. Tags structure also permits the resizing and reflowing of the document to view at a larger size and on mobile equipment.

    • Alternative text descriptions

      Screen reader users and even those with hearing difficulties do not recognize document features like images and interactive form fields. They should contain alternative text with the same information and more meaningful descriptions than the link text, with multimedia equivalents like video and audio elements.

    Additional document accessibility features

    Some additional characteristics that should be available in accessible PDF files include:

    • Audit controls
    • Presence of text instead of images
    • Absence of blinking or flashing elements
    • No unnecessary focus changes
    • Consistency in navigation and identification of elements
    • Sufficiently contrasting color combinations
    • Not relying on color or sensory characteristics for conveying meaning

    Recommendations for higher education institutions to help ensure accessibility

    Higher education institutions can adopt a few practical steps to ensure the institution’s digital content, online delivery systems, and technologies are fully accessible to their blind students and those with disabilities. These steps include:

    • They check all electronic and information technology like digital content, websites, learning management systems, classroom technology, library databases, academic resources, and online delivery for accessibility standards.
    • They involve students, staff, and faculty in the usability testing process to get different perspectives. The institution can then develop a proactive plan to remediate any detected accessibility issues.
    • They prioritize maintaining optimal accessibility standards right from the start and including it in the acquisition and procurement process.
    • Make it mandatory that all vendors provide an accurate product Voluntary product accessibility template.
    • They make provisions to provide for or purchase alternate access for inaccessible technology. If required, they may consider developing an Equally Effective Alternate Access Plan form.
    • They train the staff, faculty, and students about accessibility issues and standards.
    • They reach out to other campuses to find out how they addressed their accessibility issues.
    • They test and get all the highest priority documents first fixed. Remember, institutions become an easy target if people or students can easily find inaccessible content.
    • They adopt a proactive approach to digital and document accessibility by creating accessible PDFs at the start. This saves on time, energy, and money otherwise spent fixing the issues later.
    • They acquire all the necessary accessibility tools, training, and software to start with digital accessibility.
    • They provide students with multiple engagement modes for the same interactions to ensure they do not encounter any barriers in accessing the required information. They will thus end up more engaged, with a higher chance of enrolling in the institution. So ensure you provide them multiple options to express and perform their actions and the same services through various forms of representation.
    • Including topics like the institutional accessible technology policy, common technological accessibility issues people with disabilities encounter, standard methods, personnel, resources, and time frames, and ensuring the accessibility of textbooks, instructional materials, and course equipment in their accessible technology training. Also explaining and describing all the common aids, services, and assistive technologies individuals with disabilities use while interacting with websites, equipment, computers, and classroom learning.
    • They provide annual training to the students and faculty.
    • They introduce the resources and services available to students with disabilities. The presentation should consist of practices for requesting suitable accommodation, an overview of the accessible technology policy, the grievance policy, and the process to follow while reporting disability-related issues. It should also include a list of the duties and services of the institution’s ADA coordinator and the disability support service office.
    • Last but not least, spreading the word about the institution’s efforts at digital accessibility. And they do it by focusing less on the problem and more on how the institutions cater to the needs of students with disorders. Many educational institutions are first-timers at digital accessibility and start with a pilot program to move things forward.

    Four helpful questions education institutions should consider for digital accessibility

    Whenever the institution has to buy new technology and materials, they should do it based on the answers to a few questions:

    • How will the school benefit from the technology?
    • What education opportunities and benefits will the technology provide?
    • Is the electronic technology format accessible to everyone with disabilities?
    • Can any inaccessible technology be modified so that students with disabilities can benefit and learn from it in a practical, integrated and timely manner?

    The institution doesn’t need to have all its answers to start with. They just have to start because digital accessibility is a continual learning process, wherein they will learn as they go.

    Electronic and information technology accessibility standards

    The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium has developed guidelines for web accessibility through the web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG). Higher education institutions can refer to these guidelines for web accessibility.

    WCAG 2.0 is the most recent version of these international guidelines and comprises 12 broad guidelines under these four accessibility principles:

    WCAG 2.0 guidelines

    • 1. Perceivable

      The digital product and website information and interface components should be perceivable to students. For example, it should provide text alternatives for non-text content, like images. And students with disabilities should easily hear and see content, including foreground content on the background.

    • 2. Operable

      All the user interface components and navigation links should be operable, and functionality should be made possible via the keyboard. Educational establishments should also provide students with a means to navigate, locate content and determine where they are on the site.

    • 3. Understandable

      User interface information and operation should be understandable. For example, all text content should be both readable and understandable. And all web pages should appear and operate predictably.

    • 4. Robust

      The site and digital product’s content should be robust enough to be reliably interpreted by multiple user agents, including assistive technologies. There should be maximum compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

      The WAI also has a total of 78 ‘successful criteria’ for the WCAG 2.1 to follow and evaluate each guideline’s conformance. There are a total of three levels of conformance for these guidelines, which are:

      1. Level A defines essential accessibility
      2. Level AA determines a more comprehensive level of accessibility
      3. Level AAA for maximum accessibility

      WCAG 2.0 success criteria apply specifically to web content. However, the WAI has also released guidance to apply WCAG 2.0 standards to non-web-based information and communication technology, especially non-web-based software and documents.


    Here are some frequently asked questions about accessible PDFs.

    • 1. Why are accessible PDFs important?

      Accessible PDFs enable disabled visitors to easily access PDF documents using various assistive software or devices. Examples of assistive software and tools include:

      • Screen magnifying equipment and displays such as a screen reader
      • Speech-recognition software
      • Text-to-speech software.
    • 2. Why is accessibility important in higher education?

      The availability of digital media to undergraduates at all levels and cultures ensures that even those having disabilities can participate in activities without limitations. An accessible curriculum also helps pupils participate in events or activities without making special requests for alternative accommodation.

    • 3. Why does accessibility matter in education?

      Accessibility is integral in schooling because it ensures that students with learning or other disabilities have the best possible educational experience. It helps them overcome any potential barriers while studying and helps instructors recognize their potential and take proactive actions accordingly.

    • 4. What is accessibility to education?

      Accessibility in education has a two-fold effect on students. On the one hand, it provides them with an accessible learning management system and materials. On the other hand, it also helps render their authentic abilities accessible to educators, who can thus fully realize their potential.


    Higher education institutions are obliged to ensure their digital learning materials and technologies are accessible to all their students, including those with disabilities. Recent policy developments emphasize that higher education institutions should prioritize digital accessibility.

    And as higher education institutions work at digitizing their instructional programming, they should understand the underlying legal and policy parameters like the importance and need for PDF accessibility to ensure equal participation for all their wards.

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