PDF Accessibility and Compliance


What’s the Difference Between PDF and Accessible PDF?

An accessible PDF is a PDF document that can be read and accessed by people with disabilities, primarily for the vision-impaired that may use assistive technology to read the file through text-to-speech or a Braille printout.

What’s the Difference Between PDF and Accessible PDF?

An accessible PDF is a PDF document that can be read and accessed by people with disabilities, primarily for the vision-impaired that may use assistive technology to read the file through text-to-speech or a Braille printout. A PDF document is considered accessible only if it meets a set of accessibility guidelines.

In October 2019, the US Supreme Court made a landmark decision. The court denied a petition from Domino’s – a pizza conglomerate – to hear whether their website is required to be accessible to people with disabilities. This ruling is considered a massive win for disability advocates as it sends out a clear message – if your documents and websites are not accessible, then you run the risk of getting sued.

PDF: A Brief Overview

PDF or Portable Document Format is one of the most commonly used formats for documents across the globe. Adobe Systems invented the PDF format in the 1990s. The ability to contain text, links, tables and graphics in a single, self-contained and independent file without needing to rely on a hardware or software platform rocked the industry. It is no wonder that PDF quickly became the standard for digital documents.

PDFs continued to advance by including modern features such as encryption, digital signatures, rich media and annotations. In 2008, it was turned over by Adobe to the International Organization for Standards (ISO) as ISO-32000:1:2008 as an open standard, through a patent license to the ISO. Today PDF continues to be the most dominant document format on the Internet, beating out file formats like ePUB and proprietary formats like Microsoft Office.

Whether you run a small company or a giant corporation, you likely deal with a large number of documents as part of your business. Bills, invoices, policy statements, training manuals and user guides are just some of the documents that benefit from the PDF format.

Why is the PDF format so popular?

The beauty of PDFs is their universality. PDFs can be opened and viewed on any computer, operating system or software application that supports it. Almost all software tools that generate digital files support the PDF format and even allow users to create PDF versions of their files from within their software apps.

Computer peripherals, including scanners, printing systems and large copiers, can create PDFs from printed documents or electronic content. So, it is easy and convenient to create PDF content from almost any source.

All of these reasons contribute to making the PDF format a universal standard for digital documents from various types of organizations, business and individuals like government agencies, educational institutions and corporations.

It’s important to note that a standard PDF document–one that does not meet accessibility guidelines–requires user edits to be accessible. For instance, an individual with a visual impairment may not be able to read the contents of the PDF when using a screen reader or other assistive technology; this is why a PDF document has to be made accessible before those with disabilities can read it.

So, what exactly is the difference between a standard/regular PDF file (referred to as just ‘PDF’ in this article) and an accessible PDF file?

What is the difference between a standard PDF and an accessible PDF?

A PDF document is considered accessible if it can be used/accessed by everyone, including people with disabilities; this includes access by people who are blind, visually or cognitively impaired or color-blind.

If you want to quickly check whether a given PDF is accessible or not, check out What’s the quickest way to check whether a PDF is accessible?

An accessible PDF makes it easier for people with disabilities to access PDF documents with the aid of assistive technology software and devices, like screen magnifiers, screen readers, speech-recognition software, text-to-speech software, alternative input devices and refreshable Braille displays.

For more detailed information on accessible PDFs. check out What is an Accessible PDF exactly? What does it look like?

Almost any computerized system can create PDFs. The format’s inherent appeal is that it supports virtually any electronic content. Unfortunately, a standard PDF not built with accessibility in mind is problematic.

The individual components of a standard PDF can be selected and edited unless the PDF originated from a scan. Adobe Acrobat interprets the pages in scanned PDFs as images that cannot be altered or manipulated. PDF content that is not selectable cannot be accessible.

PDF content must go through OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to convert an image or scan into a file with separate text, images, lists and tables–a process that can be lengthy and painful.

Screen readers like JAWS or NVDA provide their visually impaired users with text-to-speech and Braille output from accessible PDF files. Additionally, visually impaired computer users can have their computer screens and files read to them, though quality may vary.

Assistive technology tools allow a user to navigate menus, windows, tabs and their contents, using a keyboard instead of a mouse. Such screen readers are incompatible with standard PDF documents because there is no way for the tools to read image files or text that is not in the correct reading order.

What are Tags in Adobe PDF?

Tags provide assistive technologies with an outline or structure of the PDF that can help interpret the content and the reading order of the document to their users. This outline is hidden from sighted viewers unless they open up the tag sidebar menu.

Screenshot of Adobe Acrobat Tag Sidebar Menu

An accessible PDF has to be tagged correctly. Adobe added tagging to allow screen readers to read PDF documents. Adobe’s built-in automatic tagging is not perfect, and even though you can edit tags within Adobe Acrobat, the process is challenging and not user-friendly.

The tag tree provides document structure and its proper reading order. When tagging is correct, it enables a screen reader user to navigate a document and understand its content and relevance. The importance of images comes through the use of descriptive, alternative text (alt-text).

To see a real example of an accessible PDF document, check out Accessible PDF Example

Creating an accessible version of a PDF does not change the physical view of the PDF; it merely provides an alternative “view” of the document that works with screen readers.

Can you convert any PDF into an Accessible PDF?

Yes, any PDF can be made accessible, but the amount of work will depend on the source file.

Many people are under the mistaken idea that merely adding tags using Adobe Acrobat Pro or DC will make the PDF fully accessible. That is the first step, but additional steps may be required.

As mentioned earlier, scanned documents will need to go through Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to provide text and other components instead of just one image. Tags can then be added using Adobe Acrobat Pro or DC.

Still, the tag tree must be reviewed and revised manually to ensure it accurately matches the physical document, including heading levels, reading order, lists, tables, alt-text and additional information. If all of these guidelines are met, they should work with a screen-reader and meet accessibility standards.

To make sure your document is accessible, you can verify your PDF’s accessibility using CommonLook’s free PDF Validator, which works as a plugin within Acrobat.

What if you need us to remediate PDFs now while you learn to do it yourself? No problem, we will work with you to provide a customized solution that meets your current needs.

For those that want to learn to remediate PDFs, we offer world-class training. You may be able to find some answers at CommonLook’s new Client Success Portal.

If you are not comfortable with doing the remediation yourself, as it can be challenging to master without formal training, CommonLook provides Remediation Services that offer fast, accurate and competitive pricing to guarantee your documents are 100% in compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA, WCAG 2.1 AA, HHS or PDF/UA.

What solution does CommonLook offer to make your PDFs accessible?

CommonLook has been a leader in the field of document accessibility and compliance for the past 20 years. We offer a premium Adobe Acrobat plugin – CommonLook PDF – which enables teams to produce high quality remediated documents, quickly and efficiently. It simplifies and accelerates remediation tasks while injecting a methodology into the remediation process.

Here are some features of CommonLook PDF:

  • Used by more than 50% of government agencies
  • Recognized in the W3C’s PDF Techniques for WCAG 2.0
  • Ensures high-quality error-free remediation outcomes
  • Faster and more efficient than using Acrobat for accessibility