Make a (simple) PDF Accessibility Compliant

Introduction: Make a (simple) PDF Accessibility Compliant

An accessible PDF is a PDF document that can be read and accessed by people with disabilities, primarily those who are vision-impaired and use assistive technology, like screen readers, to read files online. Making a PDF Accessibility Compliant (AC) usually means "tagging" different PDF files elements. PDF tags provide a hidden, structured representation of the PDF content that is presented to screen readers. They are very similar to HTML tags in that they provide a hidden, structured representation of the content in the PDF. This structure is read by the screen readers and helps the user understand what is on the page. These tags exist for accessibility purposes only and have no visible effect on the PDF file.

Many programs can be used to make a PDF AC or check to see if one that is already created meets AC standards. PDF's can have many elements and quickly become very complicated. In this example, we will look at the basics of making something AC, and how we can use Adobe Acrobat DC or Adobe Acrobat Pro to make our document meet the required standards.

This tutorial is beneficial to anyone who is creating a document, usually adults an an industry setting making professional documents.

When we make our simple PDF AC, you'll be walking away with some important skills. By the end of this tutorial, you'll be able to:

  • Define what accessibility compliant (AC) is.
  • Understand why AC is important and who it effects.
  • Understand how the Adobe Acrobat Pro DC software is used to make something AC.
  • Create and save an AC PDF.
  • Reflect on how these skills can be applied while designing and creating documents later on in your career.

Step 1: Relation to STELs

This project uses the Standards for Technological and Engineering Literacy or STELs. STELs help better understand what technology and engineering education is and how to teach it. It's a guide providing a consistent set of standards used across many different levels of education and industry.

STELs have 3 levels:


  • 8 technology content areas.


  • Describe universal practices and dispositions that can be applied to both the core standards and contexts.


  • Represent information, ideas, and processes that are common to all context areas. They are meant to encompass the broad areas of technological activity in which humans are engaged.

Each of these levels breaks down into more parts, as the graphic shows. The interesting thing about the STELs is that they are all interconnected. We could make a linear connection from one context to one practice to one standard, only focusing on each group's main concepts. More often than not, we see many categories relate to and intermingle with one another, creating a web rather than a line.

Our Project

When we focus on making a simple PDF accessible, we narrow in on more specific STEL parts. For example, from the 3 levels, you could make the argument that this project corresponds with the following:


    Information and Communication

    • Communication is influenced by the intended audience, the medium used to communicate, and the nature of the message. It involves encoding, transforming, transmitting, storing, retrieving, and decoding information in some fashion and it can also influence social and cultural norms.


    Systems Thinking

    • Technology is interconnected and interacts with the environment. It is important to understand how all the different systems are connected to solve problems.

    Making and Doing

    • Technology and Engineering students and adults design, model, build and use technological products and systems.


    • Optimism is a commitment to finding a better solution to design challenges. Every challenge also has opportunities, and it is vital to be persistent because there is always room for improvement.


    • Understand the users of technology's wants and needs by discussing and evaluating which resources are accurate, which are important, which should be responded to.

    Attention to Ethics

    • Focusing on the impact of technology products, systems, and processes on others and on the environment. Any tech or system designed should be evaluated for its potential impact on people, society, and the environment.


      Core Concepts of Technology and Engineering

      • Technology and engineering have 7 core concepts that characterize and distinguish them from other fields of study, but 3 of these core concepts really stick out:
      1. Trade-offs encompass a choice or exchange of one quality/requirement over another
      2. Optimization is making the product the most fully functional and practical version of itself
      3. A process is a systematic sequence of actions used to produce an output

      Impacts of Technology

      • Technology influences every aspect of human lives. It's important to understand that technology and engineering have both positive and negative impacts on society and the environment. Using technology can lead to fundamental changes in individuals, cultures, and the environment.

      Influence of Society on Technological Development

      • The needs and wants of a society shape technology and engineering more than individual needs and wants. Values and beliefs of societies shape attitudes towards technology, and societies are at different development stages, which affects technological innovation.

      Applying, Maintaining, and Assessing Technological Products and Systems

      • Technologically literate people are better equipped to learn about and use technological products and systems than those who lack prior technical experience. Maintaining tech products is crucial to making sure that it works properly, and people should come together and analyze information before making conclusions about a technological product.

        Pretty neat, right? It's interesting to see how a small project making a simple PDF AC can fill up so many of our STEL categories. Now we can really see how intermingled and interconnected the STELs really are, especially by using this project as an example.

        Step 2: What We Will Need

        Today we will be using Adobe Acrobat Pro DC to make our simple PDF AC. Make sure you have this software installed and ready to go, then download the pre-made PDF.

        We Need:

        • Adobe Acrobat Pro DC
        • PDF file

        Step 3: Why Is This Important?

        8.1 million (3.3%) Americans have a vision impairment. These people might rely on a screen magnifier or a screen reader to see, or might have a form of color blindness. Using a computer to search online, read documents, or fill out forms can be challenging and daunting when the technology is not there to help those with low vision.

        Making accessible documents and web pages allow individuals who use a screen reader to maneuver through documents and webpages, hear descriptions from picture and image tags to help understand the images on the pages, and have equal access to information that most of us take for granted.

        What is an Accessible Document?

        An accessible document is a document created to be as easily readable by a sighted reader as a low vision or non-sighted reader. Making a document accessible is easiest when we are in the initial stages of creating a document. Learning all of the different types and levels of accessibility can take several courses, training, and hours. However, a few basic principles will make every document you create more accessible.

        The Basic

        Document Properties

        • Document properties allow the creator to enter information about the Title, Author, Key Search Words, Language, and Subject Matter of the document. No matter what program you are using, every document has an area to enter Document Properties.

        Correctly Labels and Paragraphs

        • Applying the right tags to headings and paragraphs helps the screen reader quickly understand the document's structure. Then, users can quickly scan the document for the information they need.

        Alternative Text to Images, Pictures, and Design Elements

        • Alternative text (Alt text) provides an audible description of a non-text object when an individual using a screen reader hovers over an image with their cursor.

        Use Lists

        • Correctly using and tagging lists as list helps screen readers understand how the content is organized.

        Specify Column Header Rows in Tables

        • Design tables with as simple a structure of rows and columns as possible and specify which row is your column header or row title.

        Use Meaningful Hyperlinks

        • Don't use bland terms to describe links, like "download here" Be as descriptive as possible, and describe the link, like "to learn more, view the student application."

        Be Aware of Color Contrast

        • If color is used in a document, make sure that it passes accessibility and can be easily read. There are many tools that focus on just analyzing color contrast. Also, don't rely solely on color to convey information, use a combination of color and patterns to appeal to any type of user.

        Include Closed Captions for Audio Files

        • Accessibility is as essential to individuals with low or no hearing ability as it is for people with site challenges. Therefore, include closed caption for all audio files in a document or presentation.

          (Information courtesy of Regional Government Services)

          Step 4: ​Looking at the Workspace

          Let’s go ahead and open our example in the program to see what we are working with.

          • Open the program
          • Open the example

          Once the example is open we can take a look at our workspace. On the right is a list of all of our tools and on the top are some simple commands like zoom, pan, select, etc. When you click on each tool it changes the workspace a little depending on the type of tool chosen.

          If you’ve never made a document accessibility in this program before, we need to add some new tools to our list.

          • In the top left select the select tools tab
          • Scroll down and add the accessibility and action wizard tools
          • Go back to the PDF

          If we scroll to the bottom or our tool list we can see the “accessibility” and “action wizard” tools on our list.

          Step 5: Looking at the New Tools

          Let’s look at the accessibility tool. There’s a lot of options here!

          Auto-tag will go through and automatically put tags on different elements of the PDF.

          This isn’t a form and we don’t have anywhere the user can type in information, so we can skip any tool that mentions a form.

          Reading options goes along with reading order. Reading order is how the screen reader will navigate the page. You can set this depending on how you want the user to hear each part of the page. If you don’t want it to follow the tags we create, then you can change this setting in reading options.

          Accessibility check is a test to see how accessible our document is. The report gives us those answers.

          Alt text is the text that goes on images to describe them to a user who can’t see them.

          Setup assistant is a more advanced way to set up how assistive technology is going to be used with this document.

          In the action wizard the only tool we're interested in is make accessible. This will take us step by step in making this pdf accessible. But before we do this, let’s just see how accessible our document is without changing anything by running the accessibility check test.

          Step 6: Running an Accessibility Check

          Let’s see how accessible our document already is without changing anything. We’ll do this by running the accessibility check test.

          • Select the accessibility tool
          • Select accessibility check
          • All of these settings are correct, so select start checking

          On the left a new menu panel shows up. The accessibility checker tab shows us what has passed the test and what was flagged as an error. If we go through some of the tabs on the far left, we can see they each have something different.

          In the tags tab, we can see how everything has been tagged and grouped in the document.

          In the reading order tab, we can see how the screen reader will go to each element and read it to someone using assistive technology.

          This is neat to look at because it gives us an idea that out document isn’t too complex. It also shows that if we were to use this document without making some changes, it would not be AC. This makes it hard for a visually impaired person to use, so let’s exit the checker and start making this document AC.

          Step 7: Making the PDF Accessible

          Now we’re going to dive in and make this PDF accessible.

          • Select the action wizard tool
          • Click make accessible

          We need to out in the document properties. I’m going to title this Simple PDF and the subject is Accessibility Compliant PDF. This information lets the user have a general idea of what this document is going to be about. The author is me, and the keywords are any words that related to your document that can give more insight on what it’s about. I’m going to put Accessibility Compliant, AC, and AC documents.

          • Click ok
          • Click ok on the new box that comes up
          • Select no, skip this step because this isn’t a form
          • This document is written in English, so select English and click ok

          Next, we have to describe our alt text. When we describe alt text we are describing the most important parts of the image. Here I’ll put computer screen showing designers should always keep their users in mind. Only then can you create truly innovative solutions. I chose this image for a reason so I understand it needs to have alt text. If it was just there for show and adds no value to the information in the text, like the image below, I would choose decorative image.

          • Select next
          • All the setting here are right so select start checking.

          Now we can see our errors and start to fix them!

          Step 8: Fixing the Errors

          We can see all of the errors we have in the menu on the left. If you even have any questions about what an error is, right click on it and press explain. This will take you to the “Create and verify PDF accessibility (Acrobat Pro)” page on the main adobe page. It’s very informative and helpful when explaining different tags, what they mean, and how to fix them.

          We can click on each element to see what’s highlighted in our document and needs fixing. To fix the element, we go into the tags tab and make our changes there. Let’s take a moment to go through each of these tags and make sure they are correctly tagging the right elements in the document.

          Next, go back to the accessibility checker tab.

          • Right click on the element
          • Select check again
          • See if our changes made the document pass accessibility

          Then, we have to pass some things manually. Color contrast makes sure that we don’t have any bad color combinations that are hard to see, like yellow on white text. This document already passed color contrast, so we can right click and manually pass this.

          • Right click on color contrast
          • Select Pass

          To check the reading order, we need to go to the reading order tab. Here we can see that the way the screen reader reads the document makes sense, so we go back to the accessibility checker tab and manually pass that too.

          • Right click on Reading Order
          • Select Pass

          Now our document has all green checkmarks meaning it passes all the accessibility test. CONGRATS! We just made the document AC!

          Step 9: Saving the AC PDF

          After all of the changes have been made and everything passes accessibility, we can save the document.

          • Go to file
          • Select save as
          • Choose a location for the file
          • Create a file name

          When I make an AC document, I like to mark it with AC and the date. This way I know this file is accessibility compliant and I know when it was made. If the accessibility standards are updated and I have to go back and add additional information to the document, I know the last time this file was updated.

          For fun, watch the end of the video to see how complex making a PDF AC can really get. In the example I show there are tables, images, different headers, and just a lot going on in the document.

          Step 10: Reflections

          We made it!

          Some PDF's can become really long and complex, even without making them AC. Making any document AC can be a daunting task, but it is crucial that every element has the correct tag so that someone who uses assistive technology to be able to understand what is in front of them.

          It is also important to understand how to make something AC because we can apply the skills we learned here to other parts of out career. Instead of making something AC at then end, we can have accessibility compliance in the back of our head while we design other types of documents like pdfs, brochures, flyers, and webpages.

          This is a lot of work, we know that because we just did it! But it is SO important because everyone deserves to access the internet and online documents regardless how well they see.

          Remember, throughout making a simple PDF AC, we wanted to learn some objectives. Think back, can you:

          • Define what accessibility compliant (AC) is?
          • Understand why AC is important?
          • Understand who it effects when we make something AC?
          • Understand how the Adobe Acrobat Pro DC software is used to make something AC?
          • Create and save an AC PDF?
          • Apply these skills while designing and creating new documents?

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