Making Accessible PDFs


Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires Federal agencies to make electronic and information technology (E&IT) accessible to users with disabilities, including:

  • Blindness, color blindness, visual impairment
  • Deafness, hearing impairment
  • Speech impairment
  • Mobility, strength, dexterity or reach impairment

The law includes standards for software applications, operating systems (OS), web-based applications and multimedia. These standards apply to files made available in the portable document format (PDF). PDF is often used as a way to preserve a document’s look and feel across a wide variety of platforms, as well as to add protection against alterations.[1]

[1] “Creating Accessible PDFs with Adobe Acrobat Professional.” United States Department of Veterans Affairs.  2014 April 11.  Web.  2015 January 30. <>

For PDFs to be 508 compliant, they need to be tagged. Tagged PDFs allow various assistive technologies (AT) to interact with the content of a document and make sense of it. There is no automated solution for creating accessible PDFs.

The most effective way to begin the process of making a PDF accessible is to create a document directly from an authoring application that produces tagged PDFs, such as Microsoft Word, and then convert it to PDF format.

To complete the process of making a document accessible after conversion, it will usually be necessary to touch up the tagging and reading order.

For the 508 Compliance, we recommend that file authors or editors check out:

Tagging PDFs

In MS Word, enable the "Document structure tags" option.

In OpenOffice, enable the "Tagged PDF" option when exporting.

In Adobe Acrobat, use the "Make Accessible" plug-in.

Document Attributes

Be sure to set the language using Document Properties in Acrobat. This allows screen readers to pronounce words correctly.

In addition to the language, it's preferred that general meta data be set too.  See Assigning Meta Data.

Setting Image Alt Text or Identifying Decorative Images as Artifacts

Figures and images in PDF documents should have non blank ALT text, except for decorative images which should be marked as artifacts.

Each image should have an ALT attribute describing the picture, which screen readers can read aloud. See PDF Techniques for WCAG: Text Alternatives.
PDF graphics with missing ALT attributes causes problems in:

  • JAWS 13 with Acrobat Reader XI: the word "graphic" is read at a random position in the reading order.


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