An inaccessible document uploaded to a website can pose the same barriers as an inaccessible web page. Documents become hard to read, use, and understand if the document text and functionality cannot be accessed by assistive technology. 

How to Fix

  • Consider uploading the document content as an accessible HTML webpage instead of a document.
  • Fix accessibility issues in Microsoft Word before converting the document to a PDF.
  • Create accessible Word templates and use these templates when creating new documents.

General Tips

  • Set the title and language of your document in the Document Properties.
  • Perform an automated accessibility check in Adobe Acrobat Pro 11 and Microsoft Word 2010 and up.
  • Use heading styles (e.g. Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.) to convey meaningful structure and hierarchy in the text document.
  • Headings should contain fewer than 20 words.
  • Use bulleted lists to emphasize individual points
  • Use numbered lists when conveying a specific order to information
  • When sorting information into columns, avoid creating a table, and instead use the MS Word column command (Layout tab>Columns).
  • Use an easy to read (sans serif) font with a minimum size of 12 pt.
  • Use good colour contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 so that people with low vision and colour vision deficiencies can perceive the content.
  • Ensure that all non-decorative images have meaningful alternative text.
  • Ensure that all graphics and images receive ample spacing from text (may present issues if converting to PDF file).
  • Ensure that each link describes the destination of the link (not "Click here!").

Microsoft Word

  • For simple tables, select the table header row, access the Table Properties for that row, select the Row tab, and check "Repeat as header at the top of each page."
  • For longer documents, consider adding a Table of Contents with hyperlinks to help users navigate through the document.
  • Word contains a built-in accessibility checker. It can be found under the File tab>Info>Prepare for sharing>Check for issues>Check accessibility

PDF Documents

An accessible PDF document needs to have tags within its content. Tags are hidden elements which help convey the structure of an accessible document to screen readers. By converting an accessible Word document into a PDF, you will often be creating accessibility tags automatically within the document. Be aware that there is no undo option when modifying PDFs so be sure to save often.

  • Open the Document properties and select Document Title from the Show dropdown box. (File Menu > Properties > Initial View)
  • Use the Add Tags to Document tool to automatically add tags to an untagged document. (View Menu > Tools > Accessibility > Add Tags to Document)
  • Alternate text can be added to images by double-clicking the image>Tag as figure. To edit the alt-text, right click the box number and click Edit Alternative Text. 
  • There is a built-in accessibility checker in Adobe Acrobat. Access through the Accessibility Menu

Reading Order

Use the Reading Order tool to fix any issues with the reading order of the tags. You can also create, edit, and delete tags with this tool or the Tags Pane.

  • Put all elements in the correct reading order by using the Order Panel.
  • Use the Background or Artifact tag for elements which can be ignored by screen-readers, such as decorative images and textbox borders.
  • Use the Heading (1-6) tags to convey meaningful structure and hierarchy in the PDF document.
  • Use the Figure tag for images.
  • Use the Form Field (or Form) tag for text fields, check boxes, radio buttons, combo boxes, list boxes, and buttons.

Tags Pane

Use the Tags Pane to fix any issues that cannot be fixed with the TouchUp Reading Order tool. The Tags Pane displays all tags in a nested tree, so users are able to see the structure of their document. Although the Tags Pane may appear daunting, be aware that if you convert an accessible source document, such as a Microsoft Word document, into a PDF, many of your tags should already be in the proper order.

  • Remove all empty tags from the tag tree.
  • Check that all active links are contained within a link tag.
  • Check that all list tags are nested properly.
    • An L tag contains the entire list. There should be one L tag for each list.
      • An LI tag contains a list item. There should be one or more list items (each with its own LI tag) contained within the single (parent) L tag.
        • An LBL tag contains the list item's bullet or number. It exists inside the LI tag.
        • An LBody contains the list item's text. It exists inside the LI tag.

Fillable Forms

Forms that can be filled and submitted electronically provide more independence for users with disabilities. Use accessible HTML forms rather than Word or PDF forms whenever possible. If you must upload a form online as a document, aim to make it interactive so that users can fill out the form without having to print it. The following tips are specific to Adobe Acrobat Pro, however, you can also use Adobe LiveCycle to create accessible forms. 

  • Use the Forms Pane to automatically detect form fields. (View Menu > Tools > Form > Create)
  • In Forms Editing Mode, you can manually create, edit, or delete any form fields which were not detected automatically.
  • Provide visible text labels for each form field. (For most fields, the label would exist immediately before the field. For checkboxes or radio buttons, the label would exist immediately after the field.)
  • Provide a description for each form field in the Form Field Properties. Indicate if the field is required. (e.g. Email (required))
  • Ensure that the form and all of its fields can be accessed and operated using only a keyboard.

Microsoft Excel

  • Minimize the presence of empty cells within spreadsheets; pack all information together densely
  • Specify regions to simplify movement throughout important sections of the spreadsheet (Select range of cells, click Formula>Define Name>Define name from dropdown menu>Enter name
  • In the top, leftmost cell, write a descriptive introduction to your spreadsheet, to ease the understanding for users who rely on screen-reading technology
  • Images require alt-text (Right click image>Table Properties>Format Chart Area (for charts) OR Format Image (for images)>Select alt-text tab in the dialogue box
  • Hyperlinks require meaningful descriptions
  • Ensure a colour-contrast ratio of 5:1 when selecting background and foreground colours
  • There is a built-in accessibility checker in Excel; use it prior to the publishing of the spreadsheet (File>Info>Check for Issues>Check Accessibility
  • If converting spreadsheet into PDF, follow this process: File>Save As>Save As Type dropdown>PDF>Document structure tags for accessibility>OK>Save

Things to Avoid

  • Do not scan a text PDF without OCR (Optical Character Recognition) enabled.
  • Do not underline text unless it is a link.
  • Do not use tables for layout purpose. Avoid merging table cells.
  • Avoid using "Read more" and "Click here" as link text.

External Resources

  1. The Accessible Digital Office Document (ADOD) Project
  2. PDF Techniques for WCAG 2.0
  3. WebAIM Guide to PDF Accessibility
  4. UK Government Guide to Accessible PDFs