- General Information
- Accessibility Tools
- Using the Accessibility Tool Features
- Using the Accessibility Check Feature
- Using the Autotag Document Feature
- Using the Reading Order Feature
- Fixing the Content Order
- Fixing Tag Order and Tag Labels
- Using the Set Alternate Text Feature
- Action Wizard
- Additional Information and Resources
This guide has tips that you can use to create accessible PDF (portable document format) files. If you’d like a downloadable or printable copy of the guide, please see the Tips for Creating Accessible PDFs handout. If you’d like a quick reference sheet when you’re working on your own documents, please see the Accessibility Checklist for PDFs.
To create an accessible PDF from a Word document, PowerPoint presentation, or a scanned document, you’ll need Adobe Acrobat Pro. A license for this program will need to be purchased for you by your office or department. Adobe Acrobat Reader has some accessibility features but not the ones needed to create accessible PDF documents.
Before you begin checking the PDF files for accessibility, there are steps that will save you time that can be done to the file in Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc. before it has been converted to a PDF. You can:
- Use heading tags
- Add alternate (alt) text for images and links
- Use built-in features like Lists and Tables
- Use the Accessibility Checkers in those programs
Please see the guides for creating accessible documents in the Technology Tools and Knowledge Bites Accessibility section for assistance making the documents as accessible as possible before converting them to a PDF.
Creating Fill-able PDF Forms
If you’re creating fill-able PDF forms, it’s recommended that you create the fill-able form fields before you begin making the general accessibility changes featured in this guide otherwise, these steps could be overwritten when you’re preparing the form. Please see the Creating Accessible PDF Forms guide on the Technology Tools and Knowledge Bites website for more information on this process.
Saving Your Changes
As you go through the Accessibility Tools and Action Wizard features in Acrobat, make sure you save your document often because you can’t always undo changes made during the processes. You’ll have to go back to a previous version of the document or start over if you haven’t saved regularly. When you’re adding the tags or adjusting the tag order, you’ll want to save more regularly. If you haven’t saved your changes in a while, you’ll have to go back to a previous version of the document or start over.
Its recommended that you use the “Save As” to save different versions of the document as you move through the stages listed in this guide. For example, if you’re using one of the features and it makes a change you don’t want, you might not be able to use Edit – Undo or Control Z on your keyboard to go back to the previous stage. You’d have to open a previously saved version or reopen the document again without saving it to start the process from the beginning.
Working with Scanned Documents
If you’re trying to make a scanned document accessible, make sure it has been scanned using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software and has actual text instead of an image of the document. If the PDF is an image of the scanned document, you might be able to use the Action Wizard tool in Acrobat to convert it to an accessible document depending on the quality of the scan. The Use the Make Accessible Feature section will show you how to do this. Note: If you can get an electronic copy of the original (source) document, it might be easier to fix some of the other accessibility issues, like color contrast or font size, from there instead.
Setting Up Your PDF File
One of the first things you should do is to make sure the title and author information is available for the PDF file itself. By adding these items, it will supply additional information for people using screen readers, so they know which document they are opening. To do this:
Open the PDF you would like to work in.
- Select File in the upper left corner.
- Select the Properties option from the menu.
When the Document Properties window opens:
- Select the Description tab.
- Add any missing information like Title and Author.
- Click the OK button.
Another thing to check on the Document Properties window is the document’s language. You can find Language on the Advanced tab near the bottom of the screen. If the language selected matches the one used to create the document, someone using assistive technology would be able to change the language their screen reader uses and have a more accurate translation.
Adding the Accessibility and Action Wizard Tools
Depending on how your Adobe Acrobat is set up, you may need to add tools to the workspace area in the right column before you can begin checking for accessibility issues. To do this:
- Select the Tools tab in the upper left corner of Adobe Acrobat program.
- Scroll down the list of tools until you see the Protect & Standardize section.
- Click the Add button for the Accessibility tool. Note: If the tool shows Open instead of Add, it has already been added to your tool workspace area.
- In the Customize section just below the Protect & Standardize, click the Add button for the Action Wizard tool.
- The Accessibility and Action Wizard tools will appear in the tool workspace area on the right side of the screen. Note: If the tool workspace area has been collapsed, select the arrow icon midway down on the right side of your screen to open it.
Repeat these steps for any other tools you’d like to add to the workspace area. For this example, if you plan to create fill-able PDF forms, you’ll want to add the Prepare Form tool to the workspace area.
Using the Navigation Panes
On the left side of the Adobe Acrobat program is a row of the navigation icons, each one will open a new pane next to it:
- Page Thumbnails (A) allows you to move throughout the document, insert new pages, replace, delete, and crop pages.
- Bookmarks (B) shows you all the bookmarks within the document, allows you to add new ones, and remove incorrect ones.
- Destinations (C) shows where you can view, add, and edit the destinations in this document.
- Attachments (D) shows you all the attached files and allows you to add new attachments.
- Content (E) shows you all the containers in the document, allows you to add new ones, and cut, paste, or delete containers. Note: Containers have the elements (tags, text, form fields, etc.) within them which adds structure to the document.
- Order View (F) shows the reading order of the elements in the document, allows you to retag structured items, move them into the correct order, and delete ones that shouldn’t be there.
- Tags (G) shows the tags (heading, paragraph, figure, table, background, etc.) structure for the document, allows you to change, add, and delete tags.
These are the panes you’ll need to use to manually check and fix any accessibility issues in the document. If any of these are missing, you can add them to the navigation list. To do this:
- Select the View menu.
- Select Show/Hide item.
The Show/Hide menu will expand, select Navigation Panes from the list.
The Navigation Panes menu will expand with additional navigation options listed, select the items you would like add to the navigation.
Using the Accessibility Tool Features
- Open the PDF you would like to work on.
- Select the Accessibility tool in the workspace area on the right.
A pane will open with the available build-in accessibility features. The accessibility features are:
- Autotag Document
- Autotag Form Fields
- Reading Options
- Accessibility Check
- Accessibility Report
- Identify Form Fields
- Set Alternate Text
- Setup Assistant
- Reading Order
If you’re new to creating accessible PDFs, it’s recommended that you run the Accessibility Check first to see where the problem areas are. The Accessibility Check will show you a list of accessibility issues, so you can find and fix them in the document. If you’ve already done some accessibility checking in another program such as Word or PowerPoint before converting it to a PDF, the list of things you need to fix should be minimal.
Some of the items on the list will need a visual confirmation that the Acrobat accessibility feature can’t supply, you’ll need to do this manually. Depending on the type of PDF you’re creating, some of these features you may use regularly and others you may never use. As you become more familiar with this process, you’ll be able to use the features as you need them to fix the issues you know will be on the list before you run the Accessibility Check.
Some of the Acrobat accessibility features will only be available if that type of item is included in the document. For this example, if your document doesn’t have any form fields, the Autotag Form Fields option will be grayed out. This guide will explain the features you’ll need to fix the most frequently seen accessibility issues.
Using the Accessibility Check Feature
The Accessibility Check feature should be used to make sure all your PDF documents are accessible. It will look for tags, alternative text, lists, tables, etc. to make sure they’ve been properly marked.
To use this, select the Accessibility Check feature in the Accessibility Tool panel to open the Accessibility Checker Options window. The default settings will look for all the potential accessibility issues you should be aware of before sharing the document electronically, click the Start Checking button.
When the results appear in a pane on the left side, all the areas that need attention will be listed in bold with the number of issues in parentheses. When you expand the sections in bold using the plus sign to the left of it, you may see:
- “Passed” after the item’s name – the item has passed the Accessibility Checker. You don’t need to do anything else for that item.
- Blue circle with a question mark – this item requires you to manually check the document. You may need to fix something, possibly in the original source document.
- Red circle with an X – this item has failed the test and you’ll need to fix it. Note: There may be more than one item that failed the test within a section, expand the results to see individual items that need to be fixed.
If you are unsure what an issue is or how to fix it, you can right click on it and select Explain from the menu. This will take you to the Accessibility section on the Adobe Acrobat website where it will show what the issue is and how to fix it. For most of the issues, you’ll need to use the other Accessibility features like Autotag Document and Reading Order to fix the issues the Accessibility Check finds.
In the Document section in the results, there are two or three issues that will usually be included in every check – Logical Reading Order, Title, and Color Contrast. Logical Reading Order and Color Contrast need to be visually reviewed and marked as pass or fail. The reading order will need to be manually fixed, for more information on how to do this, please see the Using the Reading Order Feature section below.
If the Title fails, right click the warning and select Fix. If you’ve typed in a title for the document itself in Word or PowerPoint, it will automatically fix the issue. If you haven’t, a Description window will open, and you’ll be able to add a title, subject, author, and keywords once you deselect the “Leave As Is” box for the ones you’d like to change.
If there are issues with the colors you used in the document not contrasting enough or ones that are difficult to see the difference between (red and green or blue and yellow), you’ll need to go back to the original source document or presentation to fix the issues there before converting the document again and marking them as passing in the new Accessibility Check you run.
Using the Autotag Document Feature
The Autotag Document feature can be used to quickly add tags (heading, paragraph, figure, table, background, etc.) to documents that need them. To use this, select the Autotag Document feature in the Accessibility Tool panel.
If your document already has tags, Acrobat will ask if you want to re-tag it. You can click the No button, open the Tags pane, and review them. If you’re unsure if your tags are accurate, select Yes to continue with the process.
When the tags have been generated, they will be listed in the Tags navigation pane on the left side. The order of the tags in this pane should mirror how the items appear in the document. For this example, when selected, the H1 tag should be the title listed at the top of the document. If a tag is out of order, select it in the Tags pane and drag it up or down to the location it should be in on the list. If a tag is incorrect, like it lists <p> for a paragraph instead of <h2> for a heading 2, you can use the Reading Order window to select the correct tag. See the next section of this guide for instructions on how to do that.
Using the Reading Order Feature
The Reading Order feature will allow you to manually go through your document to fix any reading order and tagging issues for the contents of the document. To use this:
Select the Reading Order feature in the Accessibility Tool panel. The Reading Order window will open and gray boxes will appear around the contents of the document with numbers showing the reading order. There are two settings in the Reading Order window that you’ll need to work with in the Show page content groups section:
- Page content order
- Structure types
When the Page content order is selected, it shows the reading order that a screen reader will use to read the document’s content. You’ll need to adjust the number order, but you’ll want to make sure that the tags (heading, paragraph, figure, table, background, etc.) are accurate first. To do this:
- Select the Structure types radio button in the Reading Order window and the gray boxes will change from numbers to the type of item it is. It’s recommended that you go through each page and make sure the tags (heading, paragraph, figure, table, background, etc.) have been assigned correctly.
- You can change a tag by selecting the area around the information in the document and clicking the appropriate structure type button in the Reading Order window.
Fixing the Content Order
The contents of the document can become out of order if you type the information text, then go back and add images or graphics afterwards. You may also have blank spaces or empty tags that need to be marked as part of the background or as an artifact. To fix these issues:
Select the Page content order radio button in the Reading Order window. It’s recommended that you also click the Show Order Panel button in the Reading Order window or select the Order navigation icon, to open the Order pane to make the necessary changes.
If a tag is out of order, select it in the Order pane and drag it to the correct location in the list. A bar will appear as you start moving the tag, this will show you where the tag will be placed. For this example, the image that is visually the second item in the document was placed twelfth on the order list. It needs to be moved up in the list to the second place.
If there is a blank tag in the document:
- Select the blank tag in the Order pane or in the document.
- Click the Background/Artifact button in the Reading Order window to hide it in the background or as an artifact. For this example, the item listed third is blank and should be hidden.
Once you’ve finished making your changes, click the Close button on the Reading Order window.
Fixing Tag Order and Tag Labels
After you’ve fixed the content order, you may need to make changes to the tag labels and tag order as well. You may need to separate two items out of a single tag, change the tag type, remove blank tags, or move a tag up in the list. To do this:
Open the Tags pane on the left side of the Acrobat screen.
Select the first tag in the Tags pane to highlight the corresponding section of text or objects like images or tables in the document and make sure the tag type matches what’s being selected. Note: If you select the tag and it doesn’t highlight the corresponding item in the document you’re checking, you’ll need to:
- Right click one of the tags.
- Select Highlight Content from the menu. This will allow you to see the corresponding item in the document.
Use the up and down arrows on your keyboard to move through the tag list. Depending on what it highlights in the document, you may need to separate two tags, fix incorrectly labeled tags, move a tag, or delete a tag in the Tags pane.
Moving a Tag
There are two ways you can move a tag, drag and drop or cut and paste.
If you’re using the drag and drop method, you’ll need to:
Select the tag you want to move.
With the left mouse button still held down, start dragging the tag to the location you want it to be in. As you drag the tag, a gray bar will appear between the other tags as a placement guide for where it would be moved to.
When you’ve reach the correct location, release the mouse button and drop the tag into place.
If you’re using the cut and paste method, you’ll need to:
- Right click on the tag you want to move.
- Select the Cut option. Note: The tag that was cut will still be listed there, but it will be grayed out until you’ve pasted it in the new location.
- Then right click the tag that would be just above where you want to place the cut tag.
- Select Paste from the menu. Paste will make this a peer tag, meaning it’s on the same level as the one above and below it.
Separating a Single Tag with Two Items into Two Tags
As you go through the list of tags, you may find a tag that highlights two different types of items in the document and you’ll need to create a separate tag for one of them.
In this example, I selected a <L> (list) tag and it highlighted an image and a bulleted list. I need to find or make a figure tag for the image. To do this:
Expand the parent tag that has two child tags until you can see both. Note: If there isn’t an additional child tag in the parent tag, you’ll need to create a new tag for the one that is missing. For this example, if the <Figure> tag wasn’t there, you’d need to add it above the list tag you’re looking in.
The easiest way to move the tag is to:
- Right click the item that doesn’t fit in the current tag. For this example, the <Figure> doesn’t belong in the <L> (list) tag.
- Select the Cut option. Note: The tag that was cut will still be listed there, but it will be grayed out until you’ve pasted it in the new location.
To add the additional tag (for this example, the “<Figure>” tag) above the tag you’re working in, you’ll need to:
- Right click the tag just above it.
- Select Paste from the menu. Paste will make this a peer tag, meaning it’s on the same level as the one above and below it. Note: If you need to add a tag instead of pasting an existing one, you’d select the New Tag… option and select the type of tag it should be.
The <Figure> tag will be between the two <L> (list) tags at the same level and, when selected, only the image in the document will be highlighted.
Fixing Incorrectly Labeled Tags
As you go through the list of tags, you may find an incorrectly labeled tag that doesn’t match the type of item it is highlighting in the document. To fix this:
- Right click on the tag.
- Select the Properties option.
The Object Properties window will open.
You’ll need to change the tag’s Type. For this example, the Paragraph tag needs to change to a Link tag. To do this:
- Select the Type drop down menu.
- Select the correct tag type. For this example, Link was selected.
- Click the Close button.
This will change the tag in both the Tags navigation pane and in the document text.
Repeat these steps for any other incorrectly labeled tags.
Deleting a Tag
As you go through the list of tags, you may find a tag that doesn’t have any information, like a blank space on the document that needs to be removed. To do this:
Select a tag in the Tags pane and see what is highlighted in the document. For this example, the <p> (paragraph) tag is blank and I want to remove it.
- Right click on the tag.
- Select the Delete Tag option.
Using the Set Alternate Text Feature
The Set Alternate Text feature will go through the document looking for figures (images, graphics, etc.) and allow you to add or change the alternative text for each one. To do this:
Select the Set Alternate Text feature in the Accessibility Tool panel.
A window will open with the message “Acrobat will detect all figures in this document and display associated alternative text”. Click the OK button to begin the process.
Acrobat will highlight the figures in the document and show the alt text for them in a separate window. If you need to add a new alt text, make changes to existing alt text, or mark a figure as decorative, you can do that through this feature.
When creating alt text, each one should be short, concise, and describes what’s important about the image. When writing the description, keep in mind:
- You don’t need to include “image of” or “picture of” in the description, the screen reader software will supply that information automatically to the user. You can use words like screen shot or painting, if that will help explain the purpose of the image.
- If the image contains text, include it in the alt text exactly as it appears in the image.
- If an image is for visual emphasis or a decorative purpose use the “Mark as decorative” box. This tells the screen reader software to skip over the image and not describe it for the user.
Once you have finished making your changes, click the Save & Close button on the Set Alternate Text window.
If you open a scanned document using Adobe Acrobat and, when you try to select a line of text, the entire document is highlighted, it means that it wasn’t scanned using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software so it needs to be made accessible. The Action Wizard can fix this problem.
Note: The scanned document used as the example for these steps is several years old, but information has been updated since it was originally scanned.
Using the Make Accessible Feature
The Action Wizard has several features, but the main one you’ll need to use is the Make Accessible option. The Make Accessible will convert a scanned document into an accessible document. To use this:
- After opening the scanned document, click the Action Wizard tool in the workspace area.
- The Actions List panel will open with the build-in accessibility features, select the Make Accessible option.
The Make Accessible panel will open, it will show name of the file to be adjusted and the steps it will go through to make the scanned file accessible.
- Set Language & Tags
- Run Accessibility Check
After making sure the correct file has been selected, click the Start button to begin the process. Note: The file name is something that will need to be fixed as well. In this example, it’s named “scan” with the date it was scanned on after that. That file name doesn’t tell what information is in the document, a better name would be something like POET Trainings 2020 without spaces between the words.
Step 1: Prepare
During the Prepare step, you will:
- Add Document Description
- Set Open Options
- Recognize Text using OCR
- Detect Form Fields (if needed)
- Set Tab Order Property
Once you click the Start button, the Add Document Description will be highlighted in the Make Accessible panel to let you know what part of the step you’re on and the Description window will open.
- If the Title text box for this document is blank, uncheck the “Leave As Is” box to be able to type a title for the document itself the text box.
- If the Author text box doesn’t have the person’s name who created the document or the office this came from, uncheck the “Leave As Is” box and type a contact person’s name in the text box. For this example, the copier used to scan the document was listed as the author, so it would need to be changed.
- Click the OK button.
In the Prepare panel:
The Add Document Description and Set Open Options will be checked as completed. Acrobat will complete the Set Open Options without you needing to do anything.
The Recognize Text – General Settings window will open.
Select the Document Language drop down menu if the default setting of English (US) isn’t correct and select the language it should be. It’s important that the appropriate language be selected because if it is, someone using assistive technology will be able to change the language their screen reader or translation software uses to read the document to them.
- Select the Output drop down menu and select the Editable Text and Images item. This will allow you to edit the text and images on the document as well as fix accessibility issues easier.
- Leave the Downsample To at 600 dpi and click the OK button.
A message will appear in the lower right corner that shows the process of converting the scanned document to an editable document.
After the scanned document has been converted into the editable document, you’ll be able to select text and make changes to it.
The Detect Form Fields window will open.
There are two options to select from – Yes, Detect Form Fields and No, Skip this Step. If your document has form fields, click the Yes, Detect Form Fields button. If your document doesn’t have any form fields, click the No, Skip this Step button. For this example, the scanned document doesn’t have any form fields, so the No, Skip this Step button was clicked. Please see the Creating Accessible PDF Forms guide on the Technology Tools and Knowledge Bites website for more information on creating accessible forms.
The Set Tab Order Property will automatically be completed after the No, Skip this Step button has been clicked. The Prepare step options will be checked as completed in the Make Accessible panel and Acrobat will move on to step 2, Set Language & Tags.
Step 2: Set Language and Tags
During the Set Language and Tags step, you will:
- Set Reading Language
- Autotag Document
- Set Alternate Text
The Set Reading Language window will open. If the Set Reading Language window doesn’t automatically open, you can start this step by clicking the link in the Make Accessible panel.
- Select the Language drop down menu if the default setting of English isn’t correct and select the appropriate language.
- Click the OK button. Note: The document area behind the Set Reading Language window may be blank for this step, but it will return shortly.
In the Set Language & Tags panel, the Set Reading Language and Autotag Document will be checked as completed. Acrobat ro will complete the Autotag Document without you needing to do anything.
The Set Alternate Text window will open, letting you know that “Acrobat will detect all figures in this document and display any figures with missing alternate text.” next. Click the OK button.
The Set Alternate Text window will open again with the figures (images) that need alternative (alt) text. Acrobat will highlight the figure in the document to show which image needs the information. If you have more than one figure that needs alt text, type the information in the text box and click the arrow on the right-side of the window to go to the next one. If there is only one figure, click the Save & Close button after typing the information. In the example, because this figure is a banner with text in it, it would need to include it in the alt text like “POET Program for Online Excellence in Teaching 2019-2020 Trainings”. If that information was also listed as Heading 1 text under the banner image, this could be marked as a Decorative figure in the Set Alternate Text window instead.
The Set Language & Tags step options will be checked as completed in the Make Accessible panel and Acrobat will move on to step 3, Run Accessibility Check.
Step 3: Run Accessibility Check
During the Run Accessibility Check step, you will:
- Run Accessibility Check
The Accessibility Checker Options window will open. If the Accessibility Checker Options window doesn’t automatically open, you can start this step by clicking the Run Accessibility Full Check link in the Make Accessible panel.
You can leave the default settings as they are and click the Start Checking button. Running the Accessibility Check feature will complete the Make Accessible steps. Please see the Using the Accessibility Check Feature section above for more information on fixing the accessibility issues in the Accessibility Check results.
Additional Information and Resources
If you would like to learn more about creating accessible PDFs, please see:
- Adobe Acrobat User Guide – Accessibility, Tags, and Reflow
- Purdue University Acrobat Pro: Touch up Reading Order
- WebAIM PDF Accessibility: Acrobat and Accessibility
This handout was created using tips from the WebAIM PDF Accessibility, the Minnesota IT Services Office of Accessibility guides, and the Adobe Acrobat Help website.