How to create accessible PDF documents

Create PDFs that are accessible to people - mostly visually impaired or dyslexic - who depend on screen readers. This is a legal requirement.

New accessibility requirements for the public sector on Gov.uk

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. (It is more often than not a Microsoft Word document.)

Check your document with Word's accessibility checker

Document structure

If you consider the structure of the content, and apply the correct 'styles', your document should be accessible and will comply with regulations.

Just as a sighted person will scan the page, picking out headings and structured elements like 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!

The most important elements of a document for accessibility are:

  • Paragraphs
  • Headings and sub-headings
  • Tables
  • Images
  • Links

Paragraphs

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.

Accessible pdfs, style normal

If you want to change the look of any of the styles here:

  1. on the Home tab, right-click the panel in the 'Style Gallery'
  2. pick Modify...
  3. set the font, size, colour etc.

Your custom style will then apply automatically to the relevant parts of your document.

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. There should be only one Heading 1 in the document.

 

Accessible pdfs style h1

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.

Accessible pdfs style h2

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.

Accessible pdfs style h3

Tables

Tables should be simple and carefully built, otherwise they can be confusing when read aloud by software.

Avoid:

  • 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:

  1. Right-click in the first row.
  2. Pick Table Properties...
  3. In the Row tab:
    • under Options, uncheck "Allow row to break across pages"
    • check "Repeat as header row at the top of each page"

Accessible pdfs, table rows

Alt (alternative) text

In this tab, add a title. The description is optional.

Accessible pdfs, table alt tag

Images

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:

  1. Right-click the image.
  2. Pick Format Picture...
  3. In the tab 'Layout and Properties', expand 'Alt Text'.
  4. Type a short but meaningful title for the image. (Description is optional.)

image alt tag

Important

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.

Links

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".

Other tips

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.