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Essential Ingredients for Accessible PDFs: Part 1

by Megan Harris
November 23, 2021

If you must create a PDF, it is imperative that you make it accessible for as many people as possible. 1 in 4 people live with a disability which may include visual or mobile disabilities that make accessing content on the web difficult. Doing what you can to break down barriers, such as making sure you have accessible PDFs, is essential to creating an accessibility-first organization.

This two-part series discusses creating accessible content in a PDF and what resources in PDF creation software can help achieve accessibility.

Learning how to make accessible PDFs is possible with the following considerations in mind.

How to Build Accessible PDFs

Before you begin, make sure the document you’re working with has accessibility principles already applied to it. For instance, if you’re working on a Word document and turning it into a PDF, be sure you have applied header styling where appropriate since that will translate into section headers in a PDF and impact reading order.

Other quick ways to make a Word doc more accessible include:

  • Setting the document language.
  • Using not only headings, but subheadings where you need it. As an example, H3 headings should be nested under H2s.

If you’re working with an image file from InDesign, be sure you have used the software’s built-in accessibility checkers to create an image with the right color contrast ratios.

Once you’ve made your source files accessible, the next step is to form your accessible PDF.


Without specific guidance, images in a PDF can provide little to no information to the person accessing them. In many cases, images help to either reaffirm the content on the page or add to the narrative. If that meaning is lost, it could potentially leave people with only part of the story.

That’s why it’s important that images contain some form of text based alternative to describe the image. Alt text can describe the implicit meaning of an image on any page.

It is important that, when creating a PDF, these sorts of text-to-speech descriptions are applied so that context isn’t lost to somebody trying to read through your document.

However, not every image needs alternative text. If the images are merely decorative in nature, meaning they neither expand on the context of the PDF nor do they really have any inherent meaning of their own, the alt tag that accompanies them is usually left blank in contexts like on a webpage. However, in a PDF decorative images are labeled as artifacts.

Adding a Title in a PDF

Adding an informative title to your document operates the same way a title tag on a webpage does: it provides the reader with context for the content they can expect.

Adding a title in a PDF is simple. Go to the description tab in the document properties of Adobe Acrobat PRO and type your title into the title field. You’ve now added a title!

Adding Headers in a PDF

In the digital world and in documents, headers are a means of separating and organizing the content in your document. In both documents and pages online, semantic meaning is implied within your markup with headings using labels H1 through H6.

Headings are useful for separating and organizing content because of the implied hierarchical structure that comes from using them correctly. Let’s say you have a PDF that has an H1 and then a flow of content directly below it. You would want to use H2’s to demarcate the flow of that content in relation to the H1 above.

Those using text-to-speech tech or keyboard navigation can use this to quickly navigate a PDF much the same way one would do a website.

Make Your Site Accessible with Mediacurrent

Creating accessible digital content can be a challenge but is a worthy endeavor for organizations at any level. Partnering with an accessibility-first agency like Mediacurrent ensures that your website and other digital experiences can be enjoyed by anyone. Contact us today to learn how we can help.

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Meet team member, Megan Harris

Megan thrives on collaboration, clear communication, and transparency for her clients. Her extensive digital marketing background has encompassed a wide variety of sectors including SEO, copy strategy, content marketing, and social media.

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