Make Accessible PDF Documents

Accessible Portable Document Format (PDF) Documents

It is as easy to create a PDF document as it is to print. If it is just for print the way it looks is your only concern. But if you send it in an email or put it on a website it becomes a digital document and subject to the same accessibility standards as all digital documents at UCSF.

PDF documents are accessible if:

  • The information can be read by an assistive device such as screen reader
  • Has hierarchy of headings – for clarity and understanding
  • Lists, tables, and paragraphs marked – so visual information is pragmatically available
  • Important images have informative Alt tags – so they are understandable when not seen
  • Unimportant images and graphics have empty Alt tags – so they can be skipped
  • Correct Tab order – keyboard-only user can follow the correct order
  • Meta Data - Title, author, keywords etc. for discoverability

Accessible PDF Document Benefits

Don’t hide your information or make it only consumable to some. By increasing accessibility, you reach a wider audience. Everything you do to help a screen-reader: Alt tags, headings, order, and metadata gives you a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) boost and many other benefits.

UCSF policy on PDF follows WCAG 2.0 AA Guidelines

PDF’s used in any UCSF digital communications (the web, email etc.) must meet the guidelines of W3C WCAG 2.0 for PDF documents.

The WCAG 2.0 Guidelines that most effect PDF documents

There are four Principals and 12 guidelines to WCAG 2.0 and AA standard has a few more. All apply to any digital document and it is up to you to check that any that apply to your document. But here are the ones you are most likely to need to know. The guidelines have numbers and subsections so you can associate them with criteria. These numbers you will see in any automated testing you do.


Section of Rule





Non-text Content

Provide text alternatives for non-text content



Contrast (Minimum)

Contrast ratio between text and background is at least 4.5:1



Images of Text

Don’t use images of text



Use of Color

Don’t use presentation that relies solely on color



Focus Order

Logical order



Headings and Labels

Use clear headings and labels



Consistent Identification

Use icons and buttons consistently

Create Accessible PDF Documents When You Create the Original Document

The best practice for accessible documents it to make it accessible as you make it. Many document creation tools have Accessibility tools and checkers built in. Use them from the start and avoid correcting later.

Documents with a true heading structure (H1-H6)

  • Retains this structure when correctly exported to HTML or PDF
  • Readability is increased for all users

Alt Text – Alternative information to an image, graphic etc.

  • Important images have informative Alt tags – so they are understandable when not seen
  • Unimportant images and graphics have empty Alt tags – so they can be skipped
  • More details on alt text

Table and Lists

  • Should be created using the built-in tools and identify column and row headers
  • Do not use visuals like styling, tab-spacing, single spaces, bold, dashes etc. only
  • This provides semantic markup assistive devices use to convey the context of the information

Use Software or a Tool to Correct a PDF document

If you are already familiar with Adobe Acrobat, it can be used to correct PDF document. Or you may find the free online tool P.A.V.E. gives you what you need in an easy to use interface – no software to purchase or download.

Choices for Inaccessible PDF

  • Ask for a corrected version
  • Correct it yourself
  • Offer an alternative
  • Don’t use it