What is an accessible PDF?

At a glance:

  • An accessible PDF gives people who can’t see, or have a hard time seeing, access to information in the PDF.
  • PDFs aren’t automatically accessible; they have to be made accessible.
  • Technology helps people who can’t see, or have other disabilities, get information from a PDF.
  • PDFs are made up of layers; the layer we see isn’t the layer computers read.
  • Steps must be taken to make all the PDF layers readable to people with low vision, blindness, and other disabilities.

Why do we need accessible PDFs?

We’ve all come across a PDF at least once or twice. But, most of us don’t know that a PDF needs to be accessible–let alone how to make one accessible. 

When you look at a PDF, it looks fine. Doesn’t it? 

It’s clear where the headings fall. Paragraph chunks are pretty self-explanatory. The reading order makes sense. Even the images look great and on-brand! 

So what’s the problem?

Computer programs, called assistive technology, read digital information to people who can’t see it. The information that the assistive technology reads needs to be set up a certain way. Otherwise, it won’t be able to read it or may even misread it.

Assistive technology reads websites, emails, documents, and other digital information.

Many of us don’t know who’s reading our information, so it’s crucial to provide an option everyone can read. Accessible PDFs do just that. An accessible PDF allows people to read information with their eyes or computer.

Another reason you need accessible PDFs? For many, it’s the law.

Related: The Department of Justice Provides Guidance on Web Accessibility (including PDFs)

Adamson A. & Jenson V. (Directors). (2001). Shrek (Film). DreamWorks.

PDFs are like onions…

Contrary to popular belief, what you see in a PDF isn’t all that’s there.

Did you know that PDFs have layers? Onions have layers, ogres have layers, and PDFs have layers.

An accessible PDF has 3 of them!

  • The first layer is the visual layer. This is what sighted people see and read.
  • The second layer is the content layer. This holds all the content from the visual layer.
  • The third layer is the tag layer. This is what computers, screen readers, and other assistive technology read.

All layers are important in their own way.

The tag layer matters a lot.

This is arguably the most essential part of making a PDF accessible.

What is a PDF tag?

A PDF tag identifies each component of the document. For example, a tag tells assistive technology if it’s reading a heading, paragraph, table, or anything else in the document.

This allows assistive technology to read the information in the proper order and helps the reader skim the document by jumping through headlines or table headers.

Why do I have to create a PDF tag?

The third layer of a PDF doesn’t automatically match the first, visible layer. 

When you “Save As…” or “Print” to PDF, the system doesn’t create an accurate tag layer.

The PDF needs “tags” to show the correct reading order. Otherwise, assistive technology won’t be able to read the information in the right order. It may also not be able to read the information at all.

Sure, you could run the Adobe Checker or use Microsoft Word’s Accessibility functions to create a “more accessible” PDF. But, chances are the PDF won’t be fully compliant.

A truly accessible PDF undergoes a process where both a computer and a person check to ensure the information in the PDF’s third layer is in the correct order. This process is called tagging.

  • Computers check tags, add common tags, and run diagnostics.
  • People tag complex information and check the computer’s work. (You’d be surprised how much computers miss.)

The combination of manual and automated tagging processes provides the most efficient and accurate accessible PDF.

The content layer matters too.

If you created your PDF on a computer, chances are the second PDF layer, or “content layer,” is fine.

However, if you scanned a document as a PDF, you may only have an image of text in your second layer. An image of text is readable by a sighted person but not by assistive technology. So without readable content in your content layer, there’s nothing for assistive technology to read.

Importance of an accessible visual layer.

Even though the visual layer of a PDF isn’t what computers read, it still needs to be accessible.


People with low vision often rely on their remaining sight, instead of technology, to read PDFs. 

That’s why this layer needs to be accessible, too.

Aspects like font styles and colors make information accessible for people with low vision or other visual disabilities.

A light green-colored, tiny, decorative font on a white background can be difficult for someone with excellent vision to read. It’s important to consider the millions of people who have far-from-perfect vision when making your PDFs accessible. 

Learn more: Your Customers Can’t Read Your Documents

How do I know if my PDF is accessible?

If you’re unsure or just want to confirm that the company you’re paying is doing it correctly, ask an accessibility industry leader to check your PDFs.  

Reputable companies gladly check PDF accessibility and hope they don’t find any issues. 

Find an “Accessible PDF” partner.

Your best bet is to find a reputable company that makes documents accessible every day.

Think about it; if you did something every day for decades, you’d be REALLY good at it. An expert, even.

Find an expert who makes your PDFs as accessible as possible.

Jessica Sanders

Jessica Sanders has been in the document accessibility world for nearly a decade. Early in her career, she worked hands-on transcribing standard print into accessible formats like braille, large print, and audio and even helped Braille Works in their transition to Unified English Braille (UEB). After more than 5 years in transcription, Jessica decided it was time for a change and transitioned to Braille Works' marketing department. She now spends her time educating the world on the critical need for accessible documents.

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