PDF documents

If your document is up to four pages long, do not publish it as a PDF. Publish it as a web page instead.

Documents over four pages can be published as an accessible PDF with an accompanying alternative format, such as HTML or an accessible Word document. An alternative format is required because:

  • not all versions of all screen readers read out PDFs consistently.
  • PDF does not currently have accessibility support on mobile devices.

Scanned PDFs should not be allowed on websites unless an alternative is provided.

The best starting point for an accessible document is the template. If a template is accessible, the process of ensuring that the final document is accessible becomes easier.

About accessible PDFs

PDF is a file format that keeps the visual appearance of a document regardless of the device or operating system used. Creating an accessible PDF file usually refers to "tagged" PDF files, although there is more to an accessible PDF than tags. PDF tags provide a hidden, structured, textual representation of the PDF content that is presented to screen readers. Tags exist for accessibility purposes only and have no visible effect on the PDF file.

PDF files are usually created in a program and converted to that format. Many programs can create PDFs, but very few of them produce accessibility-tagged files. If you are using Microsoft Word or PowerPoint, OpenOffice.org Writer, or Adobe tools such as InDesign, you can create accessible, tagged PDF files without opening Acrobat. The accessibility of the PDF depends on the accessibility of the original document.

Tip: Scanned documents saved as PDFs are not accessible. Instead, you should create your document in Microsoft Word, ensure the headings, text and images meet accessibility guidelines and then save the document as a PDF.

You will also need Adobe Acrobat Standard or Professional (not Adobe Reader) and the Acrobat PDFMaker Add-In for Microsoft Word to set accessible document properties.

Considerations for accessibility

  • The document should be a tagged PDF and all headings, lists and tables are tagged.
  • Check that reading and tab order are correct.
  • Do not rely on colour to convey information.
  • Use appropriate text alternatives for images.
  • A contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for text and images of text is used. A ratio of at least 3:1 for large text (18+ points or 14+ points if bold) is used. 
  • Recommended tool: Use the Vision Australia colour contrast analyser to check foreground and background colour combinations and determine if they provide good colour visibility. The tool also allows you to create simulations of certain visual conditions such as colour blindness. The contrast ratio helps determine whether or not the contrast between two colours can be read by people with colour blindness or other visual impairments.
  • Use styled text rather than images of text,
  • Provide a descriptive title.
  • Use descriptive links, or ensure you describe the purpose of the link in the enclosing sentence, paragraph, list item or parent list item, table cell or associated header cell.
  • Use description headings and labels.
  • Set the language for the document.
  • Tag foreign language words or phrases.

Create a PDF

Headings and paragraphs: Style makes it easier for all readers to follow your document. In longer documents, these elements can add structure for users who are using a screen reader, or who rely on the visual cue of section headings to navigate as they read. The Navigation Pane in Word lets you browse the document by headings.

Columns: Clear column headings help provide context and assist navigation of the table’s contents.

Images: If you use images, include text alternatives (alt text) and enter a description of the image or object into the title and description text boxes.

Settings: Check your document settings in the Adobe PDFMaker Add-In tab of Microsoft Word. Select the ‘Create Bookmarks’ and ‘Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF’ checkboxes.

Support navigation: In long documents, use a linked table of contents (or bookmarks with the initial view set to show the bookmarks panel). Make links out of the document look and behave like links. Don’t underline text that isn’t a link.

Don’t create a print layout: If the content is published only as PDF, use layouts that will still work well on screen. If you’re using a horizontal layout, set initial view to fit page. Find out more.

Save as PDF: After you’ve created an accessible Word document, save your file as a PDF, ticking the ‘Document structure tags for accessibility’ checkbox. Do not print to PDF.

Ensure reader compatibility: Save to an earlier version of PDF so older software can still access the document. Avoid locking text copying or printing.

Identify the content and format: Save the document with a meaningful file name. When you link to the document from a website, use a clear label that states the file format and file size.

Test your PDF for accessibility: Test tagged PDF documents to ensure the tagging is correct, and fix any problems found. Find out how to run the Accessibility Checker

Offer download options: For large documents, offer a set of smaller downloads as well as a single download. Link to each part clearly, providing a summary of the contents if needed.

Find out more about how to use the accessibility checker tool for PDF’s.

Some of this information from the FACS Digital Accessibility Standard by the FACS Digital team is licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0