PDF Accessibility
Acrobat and Accessibility


Although you can create accessible PDF files in several programs, Adobe Acrobat Professional is required to evaluate, repair, and enhance the accessibility of existing PDF files.


This page outlines accessibility features of Acrobat X and XI. If you are using an earlier version of Acrobat, read the article on Acrobat 7-9 and accessibility.

What's new in Acrobat XI?

There are quite a few new and improved accessibility features in Acrobat XI, including the following:

  • The "Set Alternate Text" option makes it much easier to add and edit alternative text for images.
  • Options for Heading 1-6 are available in the TouchUp Reading Order tool (previously Heading 1-3).
  • The accessibility checker and wizard are greatly improved.

Tags Pane

The Tags pane allows you to view, reorder, rename, modify, delete, and create tags. Many of these actions can be completed more easily using the TouchUp Reading Order tool outlined below, but there are some actions that can only be accomplished in the Tags pane.

To view the Tags pane, select View > Show/Hide > Navigation Panes > Tags. The list of tags can be navigated, expanded, and collapsed using a mouse or the arrow keys on the keyboard.

Screenshot of the tags tab.

Many of the tags are similar, if not identical to HTML. The most notable exception is the <Figure> tag, which is similar to the <img> tag in HTML.

Highlight content

When the Highlight Content option is selected in the Options (Options icon) menu, selecting a tag should highlight the corresponding text, image, or other element in the PDF file.

Screenshot of options menu with highlight content selected.

Find Tag from Selection

Just as selecting a tag highlights the content in the body of the PDF file, there is a way to accomplish the opposite effect of highlighting the tag that corresponds to selected content. First, click on the Select Tool Select tool icon. Next, select text, an image, or a table. Finally, select the Options menu at the top of the Tags pane and then select Find Tag from Selection. This will highlight the tag or tags that contain the content you previously selected.

Change tags

At times, you will encounter a PDF file that contains incorrect tags. You can modify these by right-clicking the tag you want to change, selecting Properties, then the Tag tab, and then selecting the appropriate new tag type from the dropdown list labeled Type.

Screenshot of the dropdown list to change a tag.

Add tags to an untagged document

To add tags to an untagged document, choose Tools from the right-hand menu, then select Accessibility > Add Tags to Document. This process can sometimes be time-consuming, and you will almost certainly have to edit some of the tags, but it is usually faster than doing all the work manually. This is especially true if the document contains tables.

TouchUp Reading Order

The TouchUp Reading Order (or TURO) tool allows a user to quickly add and edit PDF tags and view the reading order of elements on the page. Although it can speed up the tagging process, it does not take the place of the other tools mentioned previously. Certain tags, such as lists, are only available in the Tags pane.

To use the TURO tool, select Tools from the right-hand menu, then select Accessibility > TouchUp Reading Order. If the Accessibility menu is not visible (it is hidden in version XI by default), make sure it is checked in the option menu (screenshot of options menu) in the upper-right corner of the Tools sidebar. When the TURO tool is selected, the view on the screen changes. All of the content is enclosed in numbered boxes. Each of these boxes represents a tag and the number corresponds with the tag number in the Order pane. The TouchUp Reading Order window will also open.

Screenshot of TouchUp Reading Order tool


If you have the TURO tool open and don't see any boxes, your PDF document is most likely untagged.

You will notice a group of buttons with the names of several common tags. You can use these buttons to assign tags to a selected block of text or an object.

Adding/Changing tags

There are two ways to select an area of text, image, table, or other element using TURO:

  1. Drag a box around an element using the crosshairs crosshairs cursor that have replaced the default pointer. It is sometimes difficult to select exactly the right area, but it is a little easier if you try drawing a box that is slightly larger than the element. Once you have selected a new element, you can assign some of the most common tags to that element by clicking on one of the several buttons.
  2. You can also select everything within a box by clicking on the number in the top-left corner.

Now that you have selected the text, you can assign a tag by clicking on the corresponding button. Once you select a button, Acrobat will place the selected content in the appropriate tag. If you have the Tags pane open, you can view these changes instantly.

While in TURO, you can also assign alternate text to images by right-clicking on the image and choosing Edit Alternate Text.

TouchUp Reading Order Options
Button Adobe Tag Additional information
Text <P>  
Form Field <Form>  
Heading 1-6 <H1>-<H6> Only H1-H3 are available in Acrobat X.
Figure <Figure>  
Figure/Caption <Figure> <Caption> If you select the image and adjacent text then the image will be tagged as a figure and the text will be tagged as its caption.
Table <Table>, <TR>, <TH>, and <TD> Acrobat attempts to assign rows, columns, and headings. Sometimes it does this correctly, but this should still be checked with the table inspector.
Cell <TD> Can be used to merge cells if they are incorrectly split.
Formula <Formula>  
Background none This will hide an item completely from a screen reader. It can be used on images and text.

Order Pane

The Order pane allows you to change the reading order of the content and tags on the page so it matches the visual reading order. To open the Order pane, select or View > Show/Hide > Navigation Panes >Order or select Show Order Pane in the TURO tool.

Screenshot of the order tab window.

At first glance, it resembles the Tags pane, but there are a few differences.

  • The document is divided into pages.
  • Each element is numbered, and the numbers start over on each page.
  • There is no hierarchy of elements; everything is on the same level.

These differences help make the Order pane a much easier way to reorder tags. To change the reading order of an element, just click and drag the tag to the location that reflects the correct reading order. This new order will be reflected in the Tags pane and when the document is viewed in Reflow mode.

Alternative text

When an image is tagged as a figure, the alternative text will appear in a black box in the upper left hand corner of the image. If it has no alternative text, the caption will read "Figure - No alternate text exists."

Screenshot of an image identified as a figure with no alternate text.

To add or edit alternative text, right click on the image and select Edit Alternate Text. Enter the appropriate alternative text in the dialog box.

Table Inspector

The Table Inspector allows you to easily identify and assign scope to table headers.

With the TURO tool open, select a table and then select Table Inspector. You can now select table cells that should be headers. Right click on a selected cell or cells and choose Table Cell Properties. A dialog box will appear.

Screenshot of the Table Inspector.

If the selected cell(s) needs to be tagged as a header (<TH>), select the Header Cell option and assign a scope of either Row or Column. After selecting OK, you will notice that the table header cells will be highlighted in red and the data cells will be highlighted in gray.

Screenshot showing highlighted table headers and data cells.


Artifacts are elements that are ignored by a screen reader, much like an image with empty alternative text in HTML. Important text should never be labeled as an artifact. The easiest way to change an element to or from an artifact is with the TURO tool. Select the element and press the Background button to make it an artifact.

To search for artifacts, go to the Tags pane and select Options > Find. A window will appear with several search options. Artifact is the default search, so click Find. If there are any artifacts, the search will identify them and allow you to change them to other elements.

To change a tag to an artifact in the Tags pane, right click on the item and select Change Tag to Artifact.

View "Structure types" in Acrobat XI

By default, the TURO tool displays the reading order of the objects in a page, but this can be changed in Acrobat XI so that the tags or "Structure types" are displayed instead of the "Page content order". To make this change, select the Structure types radio button within the TURO window.

screenshot of the Structure types radio button

This will change the view so that the white boxes in the upper left corner of each element displays the tag (e.g., "P" or "H1") instead of the reading order.


Other Tools and Features

"Set Alternative Text" in Acrobat XI

Alternative text can be added to all images in the document at one time using a great new feature in Acrobat XI. In the Accessibility sidebar, select Set Alternate Text. The first image in the document will be highlighted and a dialog box will appear with a space to enter the alternative text.

Screenshot of dialog box to edit alternative text

The dialog box also has a checkbox that allows you identify an image as a Decorative figure (which is similar to alt="" in HTML) as well as previous and next arrows to navigate through all the images in the document.

Convert Scanned Text

Before you can create a tagged PDF, you must first ensure that the PDF contains real text. If it does not, you must either recreate the PDF file (if you have the original file) or convert it to include true text. To convert the document, select Tools in the right-hand column, then select Recognize Text. The quality of the text depends on the quality of the source document. The conversion is usually fairly good, but you should probably clean up the document by selecting Find All Suspects in the Recognize Text submenu.

Accessibility Check

Acrobat Professional X includes two different Accessibility Checks. The first, the Quick Check, is not very helpful--it basically tells you whether the file has tags or not. It doesn't identify even the most basic errors, such as missing alternate text. The accessibility "Full Check" (available in both Acrobat X and XI) is a much better option. This can be a good tool to ensure that nothing was overlooked (e.g., document language). To run the full check, select Tools in the right-hand column, > Advanced > Accessibility > Full Check. The Accessibility check in version XI is a bit more complete than version X and provides better documentation.  


As with HTML, a screen reader will read a PDF document by the order of its tags, but the order of the tags in a PDF may not be the same as the visual reading order. This is especially likely if the PDF contains multiple columns or other blocks of text or complex nested lists. The Reflow Tool will allow you to see the visual order of the document's content as determined by the order of the tags.

Select View > Zoom > Reflow or Control + 4. If the document does not appear in the correct order while in Reflow view, the order of the tags will need to be changed.

Read Out Loud

Read Out Loud is a voice synthesizer that is available in Adobe Reader and Acrobat. It allows you to have the content of a PDF document read to you, approximating what a screen reader user might encounter.

Action Wizard

The  Action Wizard helps automate multi-step processes, like the creation of an accessible PDF.

"Make Accessible" Wizard in Acrobat XI

The "Make Accessible" action Wizard in Acrobat XI is a great tool that includes several improvements over version X. It is a helpful way to ensure that you don't miss any steps while making your document accessible. It is especially helpful in identifying those easy-to-overlook steps like providing a page title or document language. To run the wizard, select the Tools sidebar > Action Wizard > Make Accessible. The wizard will then run you through several steps:

  1. Add Document Description
  2. Set Open Options
  3. Recognize Text using OCR
  4. Detect Form Fields
  5. Set Tab Order Property
  6. Set Reading Language
  7. Add Tags to Document
  8. Set Alternate Text
  9. Run Accessibility Full Check

Missing from this wizard is a step to check the quality of your tags using the TURO tool. Otherwise, it is very thorough and helpful. For most documents, running this wizard would be a great first step.


For a video walkthrough and handout on the "Make Accessible" Wizard, see the GOALS Acrobat XI cheatsheet.

"Create Accessible PDFs" Wizard in Acrobat X

To use the action wizard in Acrobat X, select Tools in the right-hand column, then select Action Wizard > Create Accessible PDFs. The wizard will guide you through five steps:

  1. Add Document Description
  2. Instructions
  3. Remove Hidden Information
  4. Add Tags to Document
  5. Accessibility Check (Full)

This wizard misses a few key steps such as recognizing the text using OCR, but it can still be a helpful for common issues such as missing page title.