Accessibility Improvements in Adobe Acrobat XI

Our article on Abode Acrobat accessibility has recently been updated to include accessibility improvements made in Acrobat XI, the newest version of Acrobat Professional. While I often experience my fair share of frustration with Acrobat, it is the only program that I am aware of that makes accessibility improvements with each new version. Acrobat XI is no exception—it includes several new and improved features that make it much easier to create accessible PDF files.

Alternative text for images

Adding alternative text to images has always been a frustrating process in Acrobat. It usually entails viewing the document with the TouchUp Reading Order tool and searching for images that display the text “Figure – No alternate text exists.” You then have to right click on the image, select “Edit Alternate Text…”, and then type the alternative text in the provided box. This is very inefficient and time consuming, especially if a page has numerous images, or small images with overlapping alternative text. Acrobat XI now includes a “Set Alternate Text” option that allows you to add alternative text to all the images in your document at one time. It even includes the ability to identify an image as a “Decorative figure”, the PDF equivalent of alt=””.

TouchUp Reading Order Tool

There are two solid improvements to the “TouchUp Reading Order” tool. First, the number of available headings has been upgraded from 3 to 6. This is nice. While documents with sixth-level headings are not very common, I have often wished for an easier way to tag an item as an h4. An even more significant improvement is found in a single radio button that I passed over the first few times using the Acrobat XI. A new option to show “Structure types” allows you to view the tag structure of the page inline at a glance.

Several Solid Improvements

There are other accessibility features as well, including significant improvements to the accessibility “action wizard” and accessibility checker. The updated wizard quides you through several commonly-overlooked steps, including adding the document title and language, alternative text for images, etc. The accessibility checker does a better job of identifying issues that need to be checked manually and now provides helpful explanations for each rule. The export to DOC or PPT format is promising as well.

All in all, I am very pleased with the accessibility improvements in Acrobat XI. If you spend even a few hours a month modifying or creating tagged PDF files, this is a worthwhile upgrade.


  1. Natasha

    Hi Jon,

    Thanks for the article – there are some confusing viewpoints when it comes to accessible PDF’s and it’s good to see Adobe making improvements.

    I have just started in a new role and have been going over the guidelines, our site currently uses a lot of PDF’s (which likely will not be tagged) so the public cannot alter them. I have been told by a few sources that the website must have a Word version for every PDF document on the site as well, but the only thing I see in the guidelines is “provide an alternative” – the same argument could be applied to documents that need to be converted into braille.

    I am looking for the black and white line that we must have a Word copy online as well, as at the moment the way it reads is that you can still conform to the guidelines if a member of the public is able to ask and be provided with another format instead of PDF.

    Just wanting to make sure I get this right before I spend hours only tagging PDF’s, I would rather have a Word document created for each at the same time if this is necessary.


  2. Jon Whiting

    Natasha, If If your PDF file can be made accessible, then an alternative version is typically not necessary. If you are unable to make the PDF file accessible, HTML is usually the best alternative; I don’t think a Word doc is going to be any more accessible than a PDF file. As a matter of fact, for some content, like tables, PDFs can usually be made more accessible more easily.

  3. Natasha

    Hi Jon, thanks very much for the reply. There was also a good e-mail digest today about much the same thing.

    It’s just very confusing for the most part because people from the accessibility side of the fence say that PDF’s cannot be made accessible, and people from the web dev side of the fence say that they can and the WCAG 2.0 guidelines aren’t clear in that regard.

    Aussie govt websites must reach a minimum A compliance by the end of this year so I’m just trying to determine whether I can get our existing PDF’s up to standard.

  4. Java Geek

    PDF should be a web standard for making file accessibility in my opinion. PDF files are great for read only content like anything which is only for information in web.

  5. krushna

    Thanks John,
    This is really very good article

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