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PDF Accessibility

It's fastest and easiest to make PDF documents accessible when you create them in Word, PowerPoint, InDesign, etc. (Trust us, we learned the hard way.) If you make accessibility corrections in Acrobat, you will have to re-do them all if the original document ever changes. You should try to use Acrobat only to test accessibility. Here's how:

Quick Tips: Testing PDF Documents

  1. Acrobat Pro - make sure you're using Acrobat Pro, not Reader.
    • The free Acrobat Reader can't do the rest of these steps (although it can do the PDF Form tests further below).
  2. Properties - check how the PDF was made.
    • In Acrobat Pro, open the File menu and pick Properties.
    • In the Document Properties window, click the Description tab and look for "Application" and "PDF Producer".
    • If it lists Adobe, AEM, or LiveCycle Designer (not InDesign), skip to the PDF Forms section below. (The other tests in this section won't work on PDFs make in Designer.)
  3. Accessibility Tools - find Acrobat's Accessibility Tools (you only need to do this once).
    • In the Tools pane on the right, click the More Tools icon at the bottom.
    • In the Protect & Standardize section, find Accessibility, and click the Add (or Open) button.
    • Go back to your document and click the Accessibility icon in the Tools panel.
  4. Accessibility Check - use Acrobat's automatic checker first.
    • In the Accessibility Tools panel, click Accessibility Check.
    • In the Accessibility Checker Options, leave settings as they are. (Category set to Document and everything checked.)
    • Click Start Checking and wait for the checker to finish.
    • In the Accessibility Checker panel on the left, expand the sections to see the issues.
    • There will always be at least 2 manual checks: Logical Reading Order & Color Contrast (we'll get to them below).
    • Find any other issues that say Failed; for more information, right click on them and pick Explain.
    • Remember: Avoid fixing issues in Acrobat! If at all possible, go back to the original document or contact the original author to make the corrections there.
  5. Alternate Text - Acrobat calls images "figures"; check their alternate text. 
    • In the Accessibility Tools pane, click Set Alternate Text. Acrobat will show each figure along with its alternate text.
    • Check that the alt text communicates what the figure communicates (rather than describes it). If there are words shown in the figure, they should be in the alt text.
    • If the figure is a decoration or a duplicate of text that is on the page, "Decorative figure" should be checked.
    • If you need to add or change alt text, do it in the original document!
  6. Reading Order (Basic) - export to text to do a quick check of reading order.
    • Open the File menu, pick Export To, then Text (Accessible)
    • Save the file to your Desktop or Documents folder; it should automatically open in Notepad.
    • Read through the text side-by-side with the PDF; confirm that all text is present and in the right order.
    • Note that tables will be "linearized" (shown without borders as one long list) -- that's just a limitation of this basic check.
    • If you find any text missing or out of order, go back to the original document or contact the original author.
  7. Reading Order (Advanced) - use the Tag tree to do a full check of reading order. 
    • WARNING: This method is complex and requires a basic understanding of HTML code. If you're not confident, skip this step and ask for help.
    • In the Navigation Pane on the left, click the Tags icon to show the Tag tree (if it's not there, right click and pick Tags to show it).
    • Down arrow through the elements in the tag tree; right arrow to expand collapsed nodes.
    • Confirm that all text is present, in the right order, and has the correct HTML-like tag (e.g., P for paragraph, H1 for heading level 1, Figure for image, etc.)
    • If any of the above doesn't make sense, don't do this step!
  8. Color Contrast - Use the free Colour Contrast Analyser to check colors.
    • For any color combinations other than black and white, use the color pickers to select the foreground and background color
    • Check that all text colors "Pass (AA)" (4.5:1 or higher).

Quick Tips: Testing PDF Forms

PDF forms require some additional tests. These can be done on any PDF form (even those made in Designer) using Acrobat Pro or Reader:

  1. Keyboard Operation - Anything you can do with the mouse should also work with keyboard commands. 
    • Starting at the top of the form, press the Tab key to move from field to field, check that focus moves to each field in an order that makes sense.
    • Try operating each field with standard keyboard commands (see full list in the Keyboard Testing Quick Reference).
  2. Tool Tips - Labels for form fields should be shown in their tool tips.
    • Hover your mouse pointer over each field to see it's tool tip.
    • Check that the tool tip shows the entire label of the field, e.g., if it says "First Name" next to the field, the tooltip should say "First Name" (it's OK to have extra text after the label, but not before it).
    • Pay special attention to fields in tables -- their tooltips should show the column and row headers, e.g., "Quantity Product #1".
  3. Make corrections in the original!
    • Especially with forms, you need to go back to the original document/author to make corrections. If you didn't make the form, don't try to fix it.

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