WebAIM - Web Accessibility In Mind

PDF Accessibility
Converting Documents to PDFs

Overview

A great deal of effort is often devoted to remediating PDF files with accessibility issues. This is sometimes necessary, but most of this work can be avoided by choosing a source document that supports PDF accessibility, making the document as accessible as it can be, and then converting it correctly to a PDF.

PDFs are typically created in one of two ways:

  • They are generated from scratch (e.g., from information in a database). The accessibility of these PDFs typically depends on the program or code creating the file.
  • Someone creates a source document first (e.g., in a Microsoft Word) and then converts it to a PDF. While the accessibility of these PDFs also depends on the programs used, the person who creates and converts the file has great control over the outcome.

This article will focus on converting existing documents to PDF using Acrobat DC and Office 2016 and newer.

Start with the Source Document

Several programs support creating accessible documents keep their accessibility information intact when converted to PDF. These include Microsoft Office (Word, PowerPoint, or Excel), Adobe InDesign, LibreOffice, and OpenOffice.org.

The most popular of these tools—Microsoft Office—has good overall accessibility that continues to improve with each version. For example, a document created in Word should contain almost all the information necessary for an accessible PDF, including:

  • Headings
  • Alternative text for images
  • Table structure
  • Descriptive Links
  • Lists
  • Columns
  • Legible text size
  • Good contrast
  • No color reliance
  • Document title

After the PDF conversion, some cleanup in Acrobat may still be necessary. Decorative images will need to be hidden (unless you are using Office 365 for Windows), table headers will need to be assigned a scope, and tables with multiple levels of headers will require more significant work (which should encourage creating simpler tables when possible). But these are the exception—other accessibility information should carry over cleanly.

Recreate the source document

If you receive a PDF that is untagged, or where the tag structure is incomplete or incorrect, it is usually best to return to the source document, make the necessary accessibility repairs, and then re-create the PDF. If the source document is unavailable, you can use Acrobat to convert a PDF back to a Word, Excel, or PowerPoint file. Select File > Export To, then choose your desired format.

This doesn't always create a workable document, but because most fixes are easier to make in the source document format, this has the potential to save a great deal of effort.

Creating PDFs in Acrobat

To create a PDF in Acrobat Standard or Pro, select File > Create > PDF from File.

If you are on Mac, there is an additional step in this process. After selecting the file to convert, check the Use Adobe Create PDF cloud service checkbox.

Acrobat should remember this selection for future PDFs, but it is probably best to confirm this checkbox is checked every time you create a PDF. Because this PDF is created in using Adobe's cloud service, there may be times when the PDF does not look identical to the original file, but this is unavoidable.

Acrobat Tab in Office

When you install a compatible version Acrobat on your computer, Adobe will also install an add-in called PDFMaker that allows you to create a PDF without leaving Word, PowerPoint, or Excel. On Windows, this PDF will be identical to the PDF created through Acrobat.

To create a PDF using this feature, select the Acrobat tab, then Create PDF.

Note:
  • If you have Acrobat installed (not just the free Acrobat Reader) and do not see this tab, see Adobe's troubleshooting article.
  • On Office for Windows, Selecting File > Save as Adobe PDF accomplishes the same thing as using the Acrobat Tab.

A tagged PDF is created by default. If this is not the case, select Preferences from the Acrobat tab.

and make sure Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF is checked.

Acrobat tab on Mac

On Mac, the Acrobat tab only works correctly in Word. To convert a PowerPoint or Excel file to a tagged PDF, you must open Acrobat and create the PDF there. It also requires some setup when using it for the first time in Word.

Before creating your first PDF, click the Preferences button on the Acrobat tab.

Then, check the Prompt for using Adobe Create PDF cloud service checkbox and click OK.

To create a PDF:

  1. Click Create PDF on the Acrobat tab.
  2. The Adobe Create PDF dialog will appear. Check the Remember my choice box, and then select Yes. You will only have to do this once
  3. Select Open from the dialog that appears.
  4. Save the file after it opens in Acrobat.

"Save As" PDF

Saving as a PDF in Office also allows you to create tagged PDF files without installing Acrobat. The tagging process will not be as clean as with the Adobe add-in, so we recommend using Acrobat if you have it. As with the Acrobat tab, this process is different for Windows and Mac.

"Save As" on Windows

To create a PDF in Office, Select File > Save As.

Open the file type menu, select the PDF (*.pdf) file type, and choose Save.

This should create a tagged PDF by default. If it does not, choose More options... before you save the file. A new window will appear. Select Options, make sure Document structure tags for accessibility is checked, then save the file.

"Save As" on Mac

On Mac, the "Save As" option will only create tagged PDFs in certain programs. Only Word is supported in Office 2016, Word and Excel are supported in Office 365, and PowerPoint is currently not supported in any version of Office for Mac.

If you have a supported program, open the File application menu and select Save As...

A dialog will appear. Under File Format, select PDF. Then choose the Best for electronic distribution and accessibility (uses Microsoft online service) radio button, then Export.

If you do not see this option, your program does not support creating tagged PDFs.

Important

Never choose a "Print" to PDF option in Office, or in any other program. A screen reader user may still be able to access the text of a PDF created in this way, but heading structure, alternative text, and any other tag structure will be lost.