PDF Tips and Tricks

PDFs are one of the most common forms of document on our website and in our courses, but they can also be one of the hardest to make accessible. Learn some advanced tips and tricks to making your PDFs accessible.

Check out these and other tips to help make your PDFs more accessible to users with disabilities:

Save your accessible PDFs correctly 

IMPORTANT: When saving a Microsoft Word document as an accessible PDF, there are many options for exporting the document to Adobe Acrobat. Only the traditional Save As... method has been proven to work effectively and consistently when it comes to generating and accessible PDF.

Using some of the quick save buttons in the Acrobat section of the top menu of Microsoft Word have been shown to produce PDFs with incorrect tags or other accessibility features missing.

To correctly save a Microsoft Word document as an accessible PDF in Adobe Acrobat:

  1. In the top menu, select “File”
  2. Select “Save As”
  3. Choose a location to save the document to
  4. In the “Save as type” dropdown menu, choose “PDF” as the type of file that you would like to save it as
  5. Select the “Options...” button that appears after PDF has been selected as the file type
  6. In the “Include non-printing information” section, ensure that “Document structure tags for accessibility” has been checked (checking “Create bookmarks using: Headings” in this section is also helpful if your document is lengthier and has structured headings)
  7. Select “Save”

Screenshot showing Document Structure Tags for accessibility under PDF save options

The most important step here is ensuring that “Document structure tags for accessibility” is checked. When you make your document accessible by adding the correct headings, image alt text, data table headers, and more, this option ensures that information is carried over to an Adobe Acrobat PDF in the form of tags, which share that accessibility information with screen readers and other assistive technologies. This is the only method which has been proven to successfully and consistently bring that tag information over to a PDF, as other quick save options either export the document as a PDF with incorrect tags, or omit the tags altogether.

NOTE: These instructions apply to the desktop version of Microsoft Word on a Windows PC. For Mac users, select “Best for electronic distribution and accessibility.” This will ensure that the PDF is tagged when you export it.

Screenshot showing Best for electronic distribution and accessibility option when saving a Word document as PDF on Mac

Make your PDFs accessible with the “Make Accessible” Action Wizard tool

Adobe Acrobat comes with a lot of tools to help make your PDFs accessible, one of the most powerful of those being the “Make Accessible” Action Wizard tool. “Make Accessible” will do exactly what its name implies – make your PDF accessible. It does this by guiding you through several steps to correct common accessibility issues in your PDF, including but not limited to:

  • Running OCR (Optical Character Recognition) on scanned documents
  • Adding tags
  • Adding image alt text
  • Setting document properties such as the document title and language
  • Making form fields accessible
  • And more

While these fixes may not cover every accessibility issue that may exist in your document, this Action Wizard tool serves as a great starting point for quickly identifying and fixing accessibility issues in your PDF, especially if you don’t have access to the source document.

To run the “Make Accessible” Action Wizard tool:

  1. In the right toolbar menu, select “Action Wizard”
  2. Select “Make Accessible”
  3. Select “Start”
  4. Follow the on-screen prompts and dialog boxes to correct any accessibility issues as they’re detected

Screenshot showing the Make Accessible Action Wizard tool highlighted in Adobe Acrobat

Once the “Make Accessible” Action Wizard is done running, it will produce an accessibility report of any remaining accessibility issues that Adobe Acrobat has automatically detected in your PDF.

NOTE: This tool works best for simple documents. Documents with complex layouts, irregular tables, text-heavy images or graphics, or varying text styles cannot always be made accessible using this tool alone. Even if the Accessibility Check report does not indicate any accessibility issues in your document, a manual review is still required.

Frequently Asked Questions

What if I don't see certain accessibility features in Acrobat?

The Tags toolbar, Accessibility toolbar, and other accessibility features such as the Accessibility Checker are only available in Adobe Acrobat. Adobe Reader, the free PDF software from Adobe, only allows for viewing PDFs and making minor edits. The Accessibility toolbar and full suite of PDF editing features are only available in Adobe Acrobat, which is part of the Adobe Creative Cloud. The university offers the Adobe Creative Cloud at a discounted price.

Where can I get the Adobe Creative Cloud?

If you have the full version of Adobe Acrobat, but you still don't see the toolbars mentioned on this page, you may need to enable them. Please follow the steps below to enable additional toolbars in Acrobat:

How to enable the Tags toolbar

Method 1
  1. Right-click inside the left navigation pane (by default you should see Page Thumbnails, Bookmarks, and Attachments)
  2. Select "Tags" in the context menu to put the Tags toolbar in the navigation pane
Method 2
  1. In the top menu, select "View"
  2. Select "Show/Hide"
  3. Select "Navigation Panes"
  4. Select "Tags" to put the Tags toolbar in the navigation pane

How to enable the Accessibility toolbar

NOTE: You can use this same process to add the "Action Wizard" toolbar to your menu as well.

  1. In the right toolbar menu, select "More Tools"
  2. Under the "Protect & Standardize" section, locate the "Accessibility" tool
  3. Select "Add" to add it to right toolbar menu
Why does the Accessibility Check always show my document as having issues even though I've made it accessible?

The Accessibility Check will always show Document (2 issues):

  • Logical reading order
  • Color contrast

These issues will ALWAYS be flagged in your PDF no matter how accessible you make it, as both issues require a manual review and cannot be automatically determined by Adobe Acrobat.

How to check logical reading order

NOTE: This is checked using the Tags toolbar, NOT the Reading Order toolbar. What’s the difference?

  1. In the left navigation pane, select the “Tags” toolbar
  2. Select the word “Tags” at the top of the tags tree
  3. Type the asterisk symbol (*) (Shift+8 on PC) to expand all the tags in the tag tree simultaneously, or expand all the arrows next to each of the tags that appear
  4. Starting from the top-most tag, press the down arrow key to navigate through all the tags in your document

As you arrow down through the tags in your document’s tag tree, you should see each one being outlined in your document as you arrow through it. The order in which each tag is outlined should appear logical: top-to-bottom and left-to-right.

If you don’t see the content in your document being highlighted as you navigate through the tags tree, you may need to enable that feature in the Tags Options menu. Expand the Options menu directly above the word “Tags” in your tags tree and ensure that “Highlight Content” is checked.

How to check color contrast

If your document’s color contrast was not previously checked in the source document using Microsoft’s built-in accessibility checker, you will need an external tool to check it. The Digital Accessibility team recommends using the Colour Contrast Analyser by TPGi to ensure that the contrast of the foreground text against the background sufficiently meets accessible color contrast requirements.

For more information on color contrast, please reference the following article: WebAIM: Contrast and Color Accessibility.

NOTE: You will not need to test this for every line of text in your document. Standard black text against a white background as well as most of the default Microsoft Office text themes will meet these requirements without any issue.

If you’ve verified that the logical reading order and color contrast of your document do not contain any accessibility issues, you can right-click on either of these issues in the Accessibility Check toolbar and select “Pass” to indicate that they meet the necessary accessibility requirements. However, if the document is closed and then re-opened, or shared with someone else, these issues will be flagged again as needing manual review.