PDF Accessibility
Acrobat 7-9 and Accessibility



This article covers PDF accessibility in older versions of Acrobat Professional, specifically Acrobat 7-9. This page will not be updated as future versions of Acrobat are released. For information about the current version of Acrobat, see the page on Acrobat X. For more information about general PDF accessibility and about converting Microsoft Word Documents and other document formats to PDF, see the main page on PDF and accessibility.

Although you can create accessible PDF files in several programs, there is one program that allows you to evaluate, repair, and enhance the accessibility of existing PDF files--Acrobat Professional.

Tags Panel


Starting with Acrobat 8, Adobe has started calling tabs "panels." If you are using Acrobat 7 or earlier, you can replace the word "panel" with "tab" every time it appears.

The Tags panel allows you to view, reorder, rename, modify, delete and create tags. To view the Tags panel, select View > Navigation Panels > Tags. It may be easier to view the tags window if it is docked in the side bar. To do this, click View > Navigation Panels > Dock all Panels or drag the Tags panel into the side bar. For some reason, dragging the entire window will not cause it to dock. It must be dragged by the panel.

After expanding <Tags> and <Sect>, a long list of tags should be visible. The list can be navigated, expanded, and collapsed using a mouse or keyboard.

screenshot of the tags tab

Many of the tags are similar, if not identical to HTML. Some of these familiar tags are described in the table below:

Tag Stands for Description/Note
<H1> to <H6> Heading  
<P> Paragraph  
<L> List Similar to <ul> or <ol> in HTML
<LI> List Item Should be nested just as in HTML, which can get very confusing.
<Table><TH><TR><TD> Table, Table Row, Table Header, Table Data  
<Figure> Figure Similar to <img> tag in HTML

Highlight content

One of the first things you should do in the tags panel is to select the Highlight Content in the Options menu. When this option is checked, 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 . Next, select a portion of text, an image, or a table. Finally, select the Options menu at the top of the Tags panel 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 by selecting Properties, then the Tag tab, and then selecting the appropriate new tag type from the dropdown list labeled Type.

Screenshot of the dropdown menu that appears after right clicking a tab.

For example, to change a tag from <Normal> to <H1>, select the <Normal> tag you want to change and do the following: Right click the tag and select Properties and select Heading Level 1 from the list labeled Type.

screenshot of the dropdown list to change a tag

Add tags to an untagged document

If you do not see any tags in the tags panel, your document is untagged, and you will need to tag the file. To add tags to an untagged document, choose Advanced > Accessibility > Add Tags to Document. This process can sometimes be extremely time-consuming, and you will almost certainly have to edit some of the tags. Still, it is a start and will probably be faster than doing all the work manually. This is especially true if the document contains tables.

TouchUp Reading Order


This feature is only available in Acrobat 7 and later.

The TouchUp Reading Order feature is a new and promising addition to Acrobat 7 and later. This is the first real feature to offer a fast way to tag a PDF. Although it can speed up the tagging process, it does not take the place of the other tools mentioned previously.

To use the TouchUp Reading Order tool, select Advanced > Accessibility > TouchUp Reading Order. When this feature is selected, the view on the screen will change. All of the content will be enclosed in numbered boxes. Each of these boxes represents a tag and the number corresponds with the tag number in the Order panel. The TouchUp Reading Order window will also open.

Screenshot of TouchUp Reading Order tool.


If you have TouchUp Reading Order open and don't see any boxes, your PDF document is probably 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.

TouchUp Reading Order is not perfect. Selecting text is difficult and many tags are not supported. It is also somewhat difficult to assign alternate text to images. Still, it is easier to mark up a PDF file using this feature than any other way.

Adding/Changing tags

There are two ways to select an area of text, image, table or other element using TouchUp Reading Order.

  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 at 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 panel open, you can view these changes instantly.

While in TouchUp Reading Order, 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 <H1>  
Heading 2 <H2>  
Heading 3 <H3>  
Figure <Figure>  
Figure/Caption <Figure> <Caption> If you select the image and the nearby caption image will be tagged as a figure and the text will be tagged as its caption.
Table <Table> <TR>
<TH> <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 Also called an artifact, this will hide an item completely from a screen reader.

Order Panel


This feature is only available in Acrobat 7 Professional and later.

Although the reading order of a PDF can be changed to match the visual reading order by dragging tags around within the Tags panel, there is an easier way in Acrobat 7 and newer. To open the Order panel, select or View > Navigation Panels >Order or select Show Order Panel in the TouchUp Reading Order tool.

screenshot of the order tab window

At first glance, it resembles the Tags panel, 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 panel 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 panel and when the document is viewed in Reflow mode.

Alternative text

The easiest way to add alternative text is with the TouchUp Reading Order tool. When an image is tagged as an image (or figure), the alternative text will appear next to the image. If it has no alternative text, the caption will read "Figure - No alternate text exists."

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

Table Inspector


This feature is only available in Acrobat 8 or later.

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

With the TouchUp Reading Order 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.

If the selected cell(s) needs to be tagged as a header, 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.


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

To search for artifacts, go to the Tags panel 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 panel, Right click on the item and select Change Tag to Artifact.

Other Tools and Features

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 reconvert it to Acrobat (if you have the original file) or convert it to text. To convert the document, choose Document > OCR Text Recognition > Recognize Text Using OCR. 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 Document > OCR Text Recognition > Find All OCR Suspects.

Quick Check

Acrobat Professional includes two different Accessibility Checks. The first, the Quick Check, is not as helpful as it might sound. The Quick Check basically tells you whether the file has tags or not. It doesn't identify even the most basic errors, such as missing alternate text. To run a Quick Check select Advanced > Accessibility > Quick Check.

Full Check

The Advanced Check (Advanced > Accessibility > Full Check) is a more detailed version of the Quick Check. Although it is more complete than the Quick Check, it is far from complete. Still, it does identify features such as missing alternate text and offers hints on how to repair some errors.


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 > Reflow or Ctrl + 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.