ADA and accessible PDFs

Portable Document Format (PDF) files are a reliable and secure way to present information to your users that will remain consistent on all devices and technologies, including assistive technologies like screen readers. It is your responsibility as a content creator to review and ensure that all PDFs that link from your site are accessible to all users.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act applies to all electronic content, including PDFs. The guidelines provided under the law follow WCAG 2.0 and the International Standard for Accessible PDFs (PDF/UA or PDF/Universal Accessibility). Below is a brief summary of the guidelines and helpful tips to get you started in creating PDFs and content that everyone can read and understand, regardless of their abilities.

Before creating the document

Building an accessible PDF takes a lot of planning, testing, and time. Before creating and linking to a PDF on your site, consider the following questions:

  • Is a PDF the best format for this information? 

  • Can I present this content on a page on the site?

  • Can I use Forms Manager?

  • Can I use Calendar Manager?

Remember that HTML is more accessible than PDF and that many PDFs on the web should be presented to users in HTML instead. This said, if you cannot find a method to present the information with HTML, then a PDF is the next best choice.

Accessible PDF guidelines

When you sit down to create your next PDF, whether it is a form, schedule, or lengthy document, have the Accessible PDF 508 Guidelines next to you for reference. The following is a quick explanation of the checklist.

  • Master requirements:

    • Avoid special characters or spaces in the file name and choose a clear, concise name (maximum 30 characters).

    • Document must have Title, Keywords, Author, and Language declared.

    • Document must not use flashing or moving text.

    • Link language should be descriptive (avoid "click here"), and links must be valid URLs.

    • Color-contrast ratio between text and background color must be 4:5:1.

  • General layout and formatting requirements:

    • Do not include scanned images or text (run a character analysis to convert).

    • Graphics must be crisp and legible.

    • Documents longer than nine pages must have logical bookmarks.

    • Table of contents must be logical and links must work.

  • Tagging and reading order:

    • Document must be properly tagged.

    • Document must be styled with logical format (title is in H1, sub-titles are in H2, etc.).

    • Check tables, multi-column sections, and lists for reading order.

  • Document images:

    • Images and non-text elements must have alternative text.

    • Complex images, such as graphs and charts, must have a caption or descriptive text nearby.

  • Lists and PDF tables:

    • Avoid blank cells.

    • Tables must have logical reading order (left to right, as applicable).

    • Rows and columns must have headers.

    • Data cells must not split between pages.

  • Form fields:

    • Form fields must have correct labels and values.

    • The form fields and multiple-choice elements must be keyboard accessible.

Quick tips to create an accessible PDF

  • Writing the document. Accessibility should begin with the native document. When creating the PDF content, whether in Word, InDesign, or another program, be sure to address the following:

    • Add alternate text for images.

    • Define logical document order with headings (H1, H2, etc.), lists, and tables.

    • Set document properties such as language and title.

    • Check the color-contrast ratio of the text and background colors.

  • Testing your document for accessibility. As you create documents and save them to PDF, you should have a testing process that will check for accessibility errors. The following tools are available:

Further resources

Creating Accessible PDFs in Word

Designing Accessible Forms

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