Accessible PDF Files

Before you create a PDF, have you considered whether this document needs to be a PDF?

PDFs are not the best way to distribute content on the web.

The best use case for PDFs is to distribute print-ready materials. Beyond this purpose, please consider other options before creating a PDF.

  • If you are creating a PDF to post on a website or send in an e-mail, consider making the PDF into a web page instead
  • If you are creating a form as a PDF, consider creating an e-sign form or Drupal webform instead
  • If the content must be contained in a separate document, distributing the .DOCX file may be a better option

Getting Started

The first step in creating an accessible PDF is starting with an accessible document.

If you are creating a new PDF, make sure that the document you are saving as a PDF is accessible first. We have guides for Word documentsPowerPoint presentations, and Excel spreadsheets.

Once the document's accessible, you should then save as an accessible PDF. Do not use Microsoft PDF export widgets/plugins. These tools don't preserve the correct tagging needed for accessible PDF.

If you have an existing PDF, try to track down the original file and make edits there first. It's usually easier to update the source file for accessibility and then convert, instead of making fixes in the PDF itself. If that's not possible, you should start with an untagged document and go through the steps in the Action Wizard section.

In all cases, follow these guidelines to ensure your final document has been checked for accessibility.

Software Needed

If you're remediating your own PDFs or want to run accessibility checks, it requires a full version of Adobe Acrobat Pro/CC. Adobe Reader will not have the tools needed to perform the steps listed in this guide.

If you need Adobe Acrobat or want to learn more about Adobe licenses at Western, please contact Software Services.

Testing PDFs for Accessibility

Follow the steps listed to run an accessibility check on any PDF:

  1. Under Tools, ensure that Accessibility is enabled. The accessibility symbol should appear with the rest of the Adobe tools.
  2. With the document open, select the "Accessibility" tool
  3. Select "Accessibility Check" from the menu
  4. Choose from the dialog which items you'd like to check (selecting all options is recommended). Once configured, click "Start checking."
  5. The accessibility results should appear in the checker results pane.
A tools panel with Accessibility selected and the check feature highlighted

Action Wizard

  1. Open the PDF document and open the Action Wizard from the Tools section.
  2. Choose the Make Accessible option.
  3. Click Start and follow the directions step-by-step.
  4. The final screen of the wizard will be titled Accessibility Checker Options. At this point make sure the options for, “Create accessibility report” and “Attach report to document” are selected. This will allow future users to conduct a quick check for accessibility.
    • There are a total of 32 checking options in 4 different categories. By default, 31 of 32 are selected. In general, the default selection is all you need. If your document contains large or complicated tables, you may want to also check, “Tables must have a summary.” This option is found under the, Forms, Tables and Lists category.
  5. Once the check is complete, a tab labeled “Accessibility Checker” will appear on the left side of the screen. This will show you a brief report on any issues that still need to be addressed.

Action Wizard Tip

What is the final destination and purpose of the document? Is it a form? Is it for record keeping? The purpose of the document will dictate the type of access you give to the end user. This setting is configurable in the Action Wizard.

Reading Order

If your document is a scanned document and you need to check the reading order.

  1. Use the Enhance Scans tool
  2. Under the Recognize Text top menu, select the option, “Correct Recognized Text”.

    This will scan the document for any errors, which Acrobat refers to as “suspects”, in the OCR text. If there are any, Acrobat will let you know and allow you to review and fix them.
  3. On the left sidebar of the screen click the Order button.

    If you don’t see the Order button, right click on the sidebar to add it.
  4. Boxes will appear around each “Tag” of content. An Order tab will slide of the left side of the screen, showing the order the document will be read by a screen reader.
  5. To change the reading order, drag and drop the “Tags” to their desired location.
  6. Once the “Reading Order” is correct, close the Order tab on the left.

Reading Order Hint

Logical Reading Order and Color Contrast will always flag as “Needs manual check”

Color Contrast

To test your, “Color Contrast” you can download a free Color Contrast Analyzer.

  1. Use the foreground eyedropper to select a color in the foreground. Use the background eyedropper to select a color from the background.
  2. The analyzer will show you the result with a simple “Pass” or “Fail” in the sections labeled (AA) and (AAA).

Color Contrast Tip

In order to achieve accessibility compliance our goal is to get a “Pass” in at least the (AA) section.

A “Pass” in the (AAA) section ensures the highest level of compliance and that more people can fully access the document.


Appropriate nesting is often an accessibility issue. If you encounter an error with “Appropriate nesting - Failed” it means there’s an issue with your headings. The same heading rules applied in Word also apply to headings in PDF files.

Styles H1 through H6 must be used in order. Do not skip heading levels.

H1 represents the most important heading. This is generally the document title. H2 represents the second most important headings, such as section titles. This carries on down on through H6, which represent the least important headings.

To fix nesting issues:

  1. Click to fully expand the issue.
  2. Right-click on the element that requires repair.
  3. Select Show in Tags Panel
  4. Manually reorder the selected tag to fit the reading structure of your document.

Headings Tip

How headings are styled is separate from how they are structured. You can style headings you your visual preference. Headings must be structured logically so that assistive technology can properly announce them.