Creating Accessible PDFs

What It Is

PDF (portable document format) is a computer file format, and it allows you to share information regardless of your users' computer platforms or operating systems. With planning, you can make your PDFs accessible.

Why It's Important

Making your PDF documents accessible is important so that all users are able to access your agency's information—no matter its format. Not only is making your content accessible a best practice, agencies are also required by OMB to maintain accessibility and follow standards from Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act as amended in 1998.

Specific Requirements

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act's guidelines for Electronic and Information Technology apply to web–based intranet and Internet applications and information, including PDF documents. If your PDF document contains embedded multimedia, the Video and Multimedia Products (1194.24) portion of Section 508 also applies.

How to Implement

Be sure that PDF is the most appropriate file format to distribute your document. Often content developers choose to create a PDF when other formats would be better.

What Types of Documents are Best Suited for PDF?

  • Documents with footnotes and references
  • Legal forms
  • Most government forms
  • Documents with multiple columns
  • See A List Apart's guidance on appropriate PDF document types.

Understand What Makes a PDF Accessible:

  • The PDF is a searchable text file (not an image-only scan).
  • All form fields contained within the PDF are accessible (see the U.S. Access Board's resources for more information).
  • The document's structural elements are indicated by "tags" (similar to HTML tags). NOTE: Some PDFs can be read by assistive technology even without tags.
  • The document's reading order is clear and easy to follow.
  • Descriptive or alt text is provided for all charts, tables, links, graphics, and non-text elements, etc.
  • The file has navigational aids to guide users through the document.
  • The document's language (English, Spanish, Chinese, etc.) is specified.
  • All fonts used within the document can be converted to text.
  • The PDF file's security settings don't interfere with assistive technology.

Help for Creating Accessible PDF Files

Making your PDF accessible often depends on the source document's origin. The origin has a great impact on the amount of work needed to make it accessible, and will determine your next steps. Consider the following:

  • Was the PDF created by scanning a paper document? See Ohio State University's tutorial for making scanned PDFs accessible.
  • Do you have a Microsoft Word document to convert to PDF? Be sure to download Adobe's reference card (PDF, 1.24 MB, 2 pages, March 2008) for creating accessible PDFs, for its helpful and time-saving tips.
  • Does your document contain forms? View NC State University's tutorial on creating accessible forms using Adobe Acrobat Professional.
  • Be prepared to test your PDF to confirm its accessibility. HHS has a PDF accessibility checklist to help you review your file.



Content Lead: Angela Hooker
Page Reviewed/Updated: February 4, 2013

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