PDF Formatting Guidelines

If you cannot highlight text in a PDF document, it is not accessible. A screen reader will interpret an inaccessible PDF as an image, not text. This page will walk you through the process of creating accessible PDF documents. You can either start with a Word document and convert this document to PDF or you can make an existing PDF accessible. Please note that making an existing PDF accessible is more difficult and time consuming than starting with the original Word document.

PDF documents may be appropriate to use in your online course if the document is a form, historical document, or if the document is has a complex layout. PDF documents can be created to be accessible, however, they are not as navigable with a screen reader as HTML and require Adobe Reader in order to view them.

How to Create a PDF Starting with a Word Document

Step 1: Create a Properly Formatted Word Document

Formatting Checklist:

  1. Apply heading styles to your document. Headings are required for screen readers to be able to read the document.
  2. For more than one column of text, create a table with column or row headings.
  3. Apply the appropriate list style to bulleted and/or numbered lists.
  4. Provide alternative text for all images in your document.
  5. Insert active hyperlinks for all URLs in your document.
  6. Check correct formatting guidelines if you use equations.
  7. Use bold or italic text to display emphasis. (Please do not use underlined words. Underlined text on a web page indicates hyperlinks.)
  8. To ensure accessibility, please do not use colors to indicate meaning (e.g., colored text or highlighted table rows and columns).

Step 2: Create a PDF File from your Properly Formatted Word Document

  1. Verify that Adobe Acrobat Professional has the accessibility setting turned on.
    1. Once Adobe Acrobat Pro is open, click on the Acrobat tab at the top of the program.
    2. Click the Preferences icon.
    3. Click Accessibility Under Other Accessibility Options, be sure the first two items are checked for tab order and enable assistive technology support.
    4. Click OK.
  2. Create a PDF from your MS Word document.
    1. Save your MS Word document to your computer.
    2. Click Create PDF from the Create Adobe PDF box under the Acrobat tab at the top.
    3. Enter a file name for your PDF file and save it. The resulting PDF is tagged so that screen readers can easily read it.

How to Make an Existing PDF Accessible

In order to make an existing PDF accessible, specific elements of the document need to be tagged according to their purpose. These tags are not displayed in the document, but they are used by screen readers to understand the structure of the document. Tagging documents used in online courses allows people with visual disabilities to access materials as easily as their fellow classmates. Please refer to the Tag Existing PDF Tutorial (PDF) for step by step directions.