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What is an Accessible PDF?

An accessible PDF is a document that has been specially prepared to be read out loud by a screen reader.

People who are blind or partially sighted access websites and digital documents using screen readers: technology that reads aloud the information on the page. When listening to content with a screen reader, there are visual elements that the user may not be able to see, such as:

  • Headings that show the hierarchy of information and allow readers to skip to a certain section
  • Links to external content that are underlined and appear in a different colour
  • Images that add important context or help explain a concept
  • A logical layout that shows the order for reading the document

Without this visual information, a document will be extremely confusing. For example, if a PDF has not been made accessible, a screen reader won’t know what order to read the content in – and it may begin in the middle of the page.

Prioritizing Accessibility

The Accessibility for Ontarians Act (AODA) requires that organizations with 50 + employees adhere to the web accessibility standards outlined by WCAG 2.0. Companies can post PDFs that aren’t accessible, as long as they have a statement on their site that says that accessible materials are available upon request.

Most companies opt for the statement instead of making all their online PDFs accessible in the first place. While this is a legally acceptable, it is far from ideal.

When you post inaccessible PDFs to your website, you’re putting up a barrier that prevents access to information and knowledge.

When you post inaccessible PDFs to your website, you’re putting up a barrier that prevents access to information and knowledge. To make matters worse, many companies don’t have a plan in place for handing accessibility requests. And if they never receive a request, they assume the demand isn’t there. Unfortunately, just because you don’t receive any requests doesn’t mean that someone didn’t need the materials. It’s hard to know just how many people will be turned away from your site and how many leads or sales you’ll miss as a result.   

Anytime you’re adding materials to your website, it’s important to put yourself in the shoes of someone who uses a screen reader to access the internet. Think about all the PDFs you encounter online, and imagine having to request accessible versions and wait several days to receive them. Tasks like submitting an application form, reading research materials or sourcing product brochures become a lot more time consuming and frustrating.

To give you a better appreciation for how important accessible content is, we suggest trying a few screen reader simulations:

  • VoiceOver – a screen reading setting for the IPhone, it can be accessed in Settings > General > Accessibility
  • ChromeVox – an extension for Google Chrome that you can turn on and off in your browser

SEO Benefits of Accessible PDFs

If your company isn’t concerned with accessibility, there’s another important reason to make your PDFs accessible: search engine optimization.  

Search engines can read the text within a PDF, but without the proper tagging structure it will treat all words equally. Because search engines value headings more than body text, heading tags within an accessible PDF can help you rank higher. Similarly, adding title metadata document will also increase your search ranking, as Google pays close attention to title tags.

Finally, adding alternative text with keywords to a PDF also plays a role in SEO. Search engines can’t identify imagery in normal PDFs, but if there’s image alt text provides search engines can pull all the necessary information.  

Creating Accessible PDFs

Just saving something as a PDF does not automatically make that document accessible – meta data tags need to be added to the document so that anyone using a screen reader will be able to navigate and understand the content easily. This process can be done using Adobe Acrobat to tag the elements within the document and add the necessary metadata. However, if you’re deciding to tackle this in-house, you’ll need to train employees properly (Lynda.com has a course in creating accessible PDFs), and make sure you work

For many companies, it makes sense to send PDFs out to have them made accessible. Flyleaf offers this service, for more information about pricing, contact us.

Accessibility Tips & Tricks

  • Links should open in the same window/tab, not a separate one.
  • When writing alternative text for images, never write “Photo of” or “Image of” – the screen reader will tell the user that it’s an image
  • Alternative text should clearly explain any information contained in the photo that the reader needs for understanding the content. The same image may have different alternative text depending on the context of the webpage or document that it’s being used for.
  • Make all hyperlinks descriptive & don’t write “click here.” For eg. Visit our website NOT Click here to visit our website.
  • If an image or graphic is not necessary for understanding the document, type “” for the alternative text. This will tell the screen reader that there’s an image, but it doesn’t convey any information. For eg. Patterns, decorative imagery, etc. 
Taylor MacLean