Accessible PDFs

Best Practices


When possible, PDFs should be eliminated in favor of web pages because they do not work well on mobile devices and are challenging to navigate for people using assistive technology.

However, if you must publish your information in PDF format the content needs to be fully accessible to everyone.

Whenever we publish online content, we need to make sure everyone can read it, including keyboard only users and people using assistive technology such as a screen readers.

This is also true for PDF documents. Similar to directly coding content into a website, there are special steps we must take to make sure that a PDF can be read by assistive technology. 

Issues with PDF Documents


  • Mobile Issues: Unlike web pages, PDF documents are not responsive and do not adjust to your screen size, such as on a mobile device. This forces the user to have to zoom in and the swipe left to right /right to left in order to read the content.

  • Difficulty Navigating Content: They are difficult for web users, including screen reader users, to navigate when seeking specific information. Because the website navigation menu doesn’t appear when viewing the file, users can become disoriented.

  • Language Barriers: Content within PDFs are not easily made available in different languages. Per the city’s Digital Accessibility and Inclusion Standards, you need to provide vital information in required languages.

  • Not Designed for Reading on Screen: PDFs are not really designed for reading on screens. They should mainly be used as a way to print information.

  • Maintenance and Outdated Information: PDF documents are more time consuming to update and maintain and as a result often times are overlooked and as a result information in PDF documents is more likely to be outdated.

Step-by-Step Guides


General Checklist and Guidelines


  1. Make sure the PDF is in a text based format.

  2. Create a logical reading order by providing a main heading and subheadings.

  3. Tag and build your document structure in Microsoft Word
    Apply properly nested headings <h1>, <h2>, <h3>, <h4>, <h5>, etc.
    The <h1> heading should be reserved for the document title
    Add paragraphs <p>

  4. Add ALT text (alternative text) for images.

  5. Complex charts and diagrams that are embedded in the PDF can’t be accessed by screen reader users. In these cases a text based equivalent needs to be provided. This could be a summary of what the chart/graphic is conveying to sighted users.  

  6. Make sure there is sufficient color contrast between text and background.

  7. Ensure that content displayed in a data table is fully accessible to screen reader users.  

  8. Provide a table of contents so it’s easy for users to find and navigate to information. 

  9. Save your Word or PDF document as a tagged PDF. 

  10. Provide meaningful document titles for screen reader users, using Adobe Acrobat Pro.

  11. Avoid writing important information in the document header or footer. Screen readers will not announce content displayed in the header and footer.

  12. Provide descriptive link text.

  13. Ensure that any interactive elements are fully accessible.

  14. Test your document in Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat for accessibility compliance.

How to create an accessible PDF using Microsoft Word

Step-by-step guide on how to create an accessible PDF using Microsoft Word

Appropriate font and size

  • Choose an easy to read font like Arial or Verdana

  • The font size should 12 pt or larger

Using color appropriately

  • Make sure there is enough contrast between the words and the background. For example, do not put light gray text on a medium gray background.

  • Never use color alone to convey important information. Some people have color vision problems which prevents them from distinguishing between certain colors.

Add alternative texts and captions to images

Specify Column Header Rows in Tables

  • Make sure your link text is more descriptive than “Click here” or “View”.

Use Built-in Formatting Styles

  • When adding headers to the document, utilize the various items in the Styles pane instead of manually enlarging and/or bolding text.

  • Make sure that the headings are in chronological order. For example, any headers directly below the Heading 1 section must be Heading 2. It must not skip directly from Heading 1 to Heading 3.

  • Include a table of contents for long documents

  • Use the bulleted or number list buttons to format lists

Check accessibility

Save the Word document as a PDF

Additional resources

  • How to make your Microsoft Word document accessible by Microsoft

  • Testing PDF documents using Adobe Acrobat Pro