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4 PDF Accessibility Hacks


Joan Benson

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We’ve all seen them—Higher ed websites filled with PDFs. Maybe it’s the flyer promoting the Chess Club’s next meet, the Parents Weekend schedule, or even the new student application instructions—all PDFs, and all with limited or no accessibility.

Unless a PDF is written with accessibility in mind, people who use assistive technology (e.g., screen readers) to access the content or have low-vision or color blindness will have difficulty using the pretty info in those documents.

Fixing inaccessible PDFs can be a simple task or a complex nightmare. Help yourself, and all your users, by doing these few things to your document before you make a PDF. And keep this list handy so you create the habit of authoring more accessible PDFs in the future.

1. Test & Fix Before Conversion

Before you convert to PDF, fix everything you can. It’s always easier in the original program. Microsoft products such as Word, PowerPoint, etc. have robust accessibility checkers built in. After conversion, you may still need to fix the document title and double check the reading order and contrast.

Unfortunately, Google slides and Canva don’t have similar tools. There are a few plugins that will test accessibility in XD: Adee (free while in beta), Colorinspo (limited to color checking), and Stark (limited free options). The other Adobe products don’t seem to have any accessibility testing tools.

Still, you can manually test color contrast, look for anything (layers?) that determines reading order, and, if your original program supports it, have your computer read the document aloud. Get Adobe’s PDF Accessibility Checklist.

2. Add Alt Text in Your Photo Library

As you add photos to your shared library or digital asset management system, add a 126-character text alternative (alt tag) to the photo. Then, every time a designer, editor, or intern drops the image in a document, it will have an alt tag. Content purists (that would be me) might suggest subtle edits for each use, but in the real world, an 80% alt tag is better than none.

3. Add Alt Text to Your Logo on Flyers

Sure, every image needs alt text, but not all images carry the same value. I have seen too many single-page PDFs where the only ID for the institution is the logo, yet the logo has no alt text. That means someone accessing the content with a screen reader will never know the institution’s name. (On the other hand, a 64-page annual report with the logo on every page might be better served by marking the logo as decorative.)

4. Let Your PDF Speak

If you’ve already created the PDF or you’re facing a large inventory of old PDFs that need to be made accessible, this tip is for you: Check the reading order by activating the read aloud function in Acrobat Reader (the free version) and listening to your document. If the reading order is scrambled, you’ll know soon.

Fixing a scrambled PDF requires Acrobat Pro, and some skill or experience tagging a PDF. As a practical matter, if you’re sorting a large backlog of PDFs into queues for staff with different skill levels at making PDFs accessible, this is a great first step. If the doc makes sense, it can go in the easier pile.

Make Accessibility a Habit

You don’t need to delay converting existing PDFs into an accessible form. Create a process that works for you and your team. Keep in mind you are creating documents that give ALL people better information about your institution without the frustration created by inaccessible PDFs.

We’d love to talk with you about accessibility and your institution’s website. Contact us anytime.

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