Is PDF accessible?

Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format developed by Adobe® Systems. PDF makes it possible to send documents with original formatting intact. PDF files are created when an Adobe Acrobat user converts a file from any source document into PDF using a convert to PDF option provided by Adobe Acrobat. In order to read PDF files, the user must use the Adobe Acrobat Reader®, a free application distributed by Adobe Systems.

The growing popularity of PDF has created concerns about accessibility, particularly for users of screen readers. With the release of Adobe® Acrobat® 8, Adobe took significant steps toward improving PDF accessibility by communicating with companies such as Dolphin Computer Access, Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, Ai Squared, and IBM.

According to Adobe's Acrobat 8 family and accessibility page, some new accessibility improvements include:

  • Form fields are now automatically recognized, created, and tagged for accessibility.
  • Accessibility for PDF forms that are non-interactive has been added.
  • A Table Inspector for improving the accessibility of tables in PDF files has been added to the Touch Up Read Order tool in Acrobat 8 Professional.
  • The speed and accuracy of automatic tagging of PDF files has been improved.
  • Read Out Loud text to speech has been improved in Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Reader® to allow users to highlight the paragraphs being read. Users can now reverse direction while using Read Out Loud.
  • The Accessibility Checker in Acrobat 8 Professional has been improved, and additional tests for Section 508 and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have been added (WCAG 1 and WCAG 2 Draft).

With the release of Adobe® Acrobat® 9, Adobe has added a few additional accessibility improvements (list incomplete):

  • Table Editor tool in the TouchUp Read Order panel that facilitates the evaluation and repair of PDF tables for accessibility. The Table Editor tool features a user interface that provides users with an immediate indication of the scope and role of cells in tables within PDF files.
  • Improved support for dynamic PDF forms that have been created using Adobe LiveCycle® Designer ES software. As tables render themselves according to the responses provided by users, the document's dynamic rendering is communicated to assistive technology.

Significantly, Adobe Acrobat 9 can now prevent security settings from interfering with screen readers (Click here for the full article) PDF creators now have the ability to maintain document security while allowing screen readers which are recognized by Adobe, access to text. To enable this feature, use one of the following settings:

  • For low-encryption-level security, select Enable Copying Of Text, Images, And Other Content in the Password Security - Settings dialog box.
  • For high-encryption-level security, select Enable Text Access For Screen Reader Devices For The Visually Impaired in the Password Security - Settings dialog box. This option overrides the document’s security settings only for the purpose of giving assistive software, such as screen readers, access to the content.

Adobe's efforts have brought PDF's closer toward PDF accessibility, but barriers still exist. Most notably, of the three types of PDF documents—unstructured, structured, and tagged—only tagged PDF files are optimized for accessibility and very few authors actively create tagged PDF files, either because this requires additional effort or because of lack of awareness. Authors are also limited by the capabilities of their word processing or desktop publishing tools, many of which have PDF export capabilities that do not currently support tagged PDF format.

Although Adobe Acrobat 9 Standard software provides some functionality for making existing PDF files accessible, you must use Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro or Acrobat 9 Pro Extended software to perform certain tasks — such as editing reading order or editing document structure tags — that may be necessary to make some PDF documents and forms accessible.

Adobe provides accessibility support on its Acrobat accessibility website. In addition, there are a number of noteworthy training resources available from Adobe. Many were written for earlier versions of Acrobat, but they are still useful in describing the process for creating accessible PDF files.

Although it is possible to create an accessible PDF document and possible for a Windows® user to read the document if equipped with the appropriate software, many users and advocacy groups continue to recommend that PDF documents be accompanied by alternative format documents that are more universally accessible, such as HTML.

For more information about Adobe Reader Accessibility report, visit the Adobe Acrobat & Adobe Reader Accessibility FAQ Page.