PDFs, and all digital documents, must be accessible to individuals with disabilities to be compliant with established laws and guidelines.

What are PDFs?

The Portable Document Format, better known as PDF, was created by Adobe in the early 1990s as a versatile digital document that could be viewed, shared, and printed broadly across device types and operating systems.

Today, PDFs are among the most popular document types used in business and in personal life — from tax documents to party fliers, single-page recipes to thousand-page repair manuals.

Why do PDFs have to be accessible?

Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in several spheres of public life. The popularity and versatility of PDFs make them integral to employment, education, consumer behavior and processes, and much more.

If PDFs are not accessible to people with disabilities and compatible with assistive technology, millions of Americans and over a billion people worldwide have the potential to be excluded from using them fully, if at all. 

How can PDFs be made accessible?

Digital content needs to be built with structure and according to accessibility guidelines to display visually, be available to assistive technology like screen readers, and accept user input in ways that are accessible.

PDFs are not automatically accessible. To be compliant, they need to go through a process called tagging, during which:

  • Content is identified by type (like headings, paragraphs, lists, tables, and figures);
  • The order of information is specified so that everyone, including users of assistive technology, can read the content in the correct order;
  • Elements like images are given text alternatives or other specifications; and,
  • Form fields, links, and other elements are labeled and adjusted to ensure usability.

Tagging, as well as an evaluation of the content itself and other considerations, can be performed by document accessibility experts. There are options available for auto-tagging and other tools to make accessibility improvements; however, manual remediation should still be performed, as automated tools can only guess for factors like the proper content types and order, and will be unable to perform other key steps, like providing meaningful text alternatives to images.