How to create accessible PDF documents
Create PDFs that are accessible to people who depend on screen readers. This is a legal requirement. Most of these people are visually impaired or dyslexic.
Pay heed to certain features of your document, and it should be accessible and will comply with regulations.
The simplest method is to start with your 'source' document. That is, the one where you compose and lay out the content before exporting it to a PDF file (more often than not in Microsoft Word).
This is a field in the document properties. It's often overlooked, even though it has several important functions! One is that it's indexed by search engines: when the document is listed in search results, it's used as the link to the file.
Another function is that assistive audio software reads it aloud when reading the document. It's important to populate the field to make the document accessible. (Some versions of Word may insert the filename, which might be quite cryptic.)
- In Word, select the File tab. Look under Info, Properties.
- Enter the document title. (You could copy/paste this from the main heading on page 1.)
When you export the document, it will carry over to the new PDF.
Just as a sighted person will scan the page, picking out headings, images and tables, it allows a visually impaired person to do the same. Otherwise they would have to listen to the page word-by-word to understand its purpose! Apply the correct 'styles' to make the structure accessible.
The most important structural elements for accessibility are:
- Headings and sub-headings
These are the blocks of text that make up the bulk of most documents. By default, new text you type into Word is given the 'Normal' style (Home > Styles).
However, unformatted text pasted into Word may not have have any style at all. You will need to apply the 'Normal' style to all the paragraphs in the document.
If you want to change the look of any of the styles here:
- on the Home tab, right-click the panel in the 'Style Gallery'
- pick Modify...
- set the font, size, colour etc.
Your custom style will then apply automatically to the relevant parts of your document. You only have to do this once for each style.
Headings and sub-headings
Don't be tempted to select the text of your heading, enlarge the font, then bold it! This gives it a visual style, but assistive software will be unable to tell it apart from normal paragraph text.
You must apply a Heading style. If it's the main title of the document, give it the style Heading 1.
Again, you can modify the size, colour etc within the Style Gallery on the Home tab. This is the safest and most consistent way to style your document.
Section headings should be Heading 2.
So that the document has a logical hierarchy, sub-sections within this should be set to Heading 3. Begin the next high-level section with a new Heading 2.
More good reasons to set the headings
In a longer document, once you've set the headings:
- Word generates a contents list which you can opt to insert: no laborious manual build, nor amendments when you update the document.
- You can quickly navigate the document using the Navigation Pane.
Tables should be simple and carefully built, otherwise they can be confusing when read aloud by software.
- splitting or merging cells.
- using multiple header rows down the table. It's better to have separate tables, each with a header row.
Never use tabs or spaces to create the whitespace between columns. Always use the table tools supplied. If you want an invisible grid, set this in Border Styles.
Setting the column headers
In the first row, you may have made the text bold to show (visually) that it's the header. It needs a bit more to make this clear to an unsighted person:
- Right-click in the first row.
- Pick Table Properties...
- In the Row tab:
- under Options, uncheck "Allow row to break across pages"
- check "Repeat as header row at the top of each page"
Alt (alternative) text
In this tab, add a title. The description is optional.
In some versions of Word, when you insert an image, it writes the filename into the 'alt tag'. The filename could be something like "_108734505_k2-18b.png.jpg".
Assistive software will read the alt tag aloud when it gets to the image!
To insert alt text:
- Right-click the image.
- Pick Format Picture...
- In the tab 'Layout and Properties', expand 'Alt Text'.
- Type a short but meaningful description for the image. (Title is optional.)
Avoid using an image that contains essential text. You could use the alt text to convey its meaning, but it's best not to use it if there's a lot of text in the image. Put the text in a normal paragraph.
Just as with web pages, don't create a link by simply pasting in the URL. Assistive software will read out the whole URL! As well as being poor listening, it may convey nothing about the target content.
Do type some helpful words for the link, then paste the URL into the tool at Insert > Hyperlink.
Never use 'Click here' or "Read more" as link text. This is as useful as a signpost saying "More road".
To create a page break:
- Don't type lots of carriage returns to push the next page content downwards.
- Do type Ctrl + Return to create a hard break at the end of the last line of the previous page.
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