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Accessible PDF


WebAIM PDF Accessibility U.S. Department of Health & Human Services


Helpful guide!

Acrobat Pro DC Accessible forms -


Acrobat X Pro Accessible Forms and Interactive Documents (PDF)

Acrobat XI Pro Accessible Forms and Interactive Documents (PDF)

Adobe Forum:

Creating Accessible PDFs with Adobe InDesign 5.5 -6.0 (YouTube video)

Section 508


Basic Elements

  • Any document that is unable to be made accessible will need to have a separate accessible version available for disabled users to access.
  • Visual check performed on the document to ensure that no hidden data from Word (or other applications used to create the original document) is present in the PDF file
  • All comments, sticky notes, and reviews been removed from the PDF document
  • Document file name does not contain spaces or special characters
  • Document file name is concise, generally be limited to 20-30 characters or less, and makes the content of the file clear in the context in which it is presented
  • Uses recommended fonts: e.g., Verdana, Arial, Tahoma, Helvetica or Times New Roman
  • The document language should be  specified, i.e. the Document Properties / Advanced tab should have the Language set to “English” or “English US”.
  • Bookmarks included in all PDFs that are more than 9 pages long and, if bookmarks are present they mirror the reading order.  If the document contains a Table of Contents (TOC) or Bookmarks they must be functioning correctly.
  • All URL’s must contain the correct hyperlink and display the fully qualified URL (i.e., and not
  • All URLs must be linked to an active Web Destination.


  • Full Accessibility Report completed on the document in Adobe Acrobat Professional 8 or higher, showing no errors are present
  • Documents with multicolumn text, tables, or call-out boxes are checked for correct reading order using the Acrobat Pro ‘Read Aloud’ function and/or the Document Reflow view.
  • Using the “Read Aloud” function will also validate that the tab order of the document is correct and that a screen reader will be able to track the correct flow of the document.

Tagging and Reading Order

  • Work out of the Tags Panel and Page Content. Using TORU can create “z-order” (disappearing text) problems.
  • Disappearing text can happen in Tags too so be careful and save frequently.
  • The document should be properly tagged, i.e. the Document Properties / Description tab should have “Yes” selected for “Tagged PDF”.
  • The PDF formatted using Style elements (Heading 1, Heading 2) and/or Outline in a hierarchical manner (i.e., Heading 1 to Heading 2 to Body Text). If a designation such as bold and/or italicized text is used to denote headings, the must be properly tagged as Headings.
  • PDF tagged with a logical reading/tabbing order (e.g., from left to right, top to bottom)   
  • Set reading order after tweaking the tags. Otherwise, extra spaces and tabs are included in the reading order.

Layout and Formatting

  • All scanned signatures been removed from the PDF
  • Style is used as opposed to manually typed characters (e.g., hyphens, numbers, or graphics)
  • Lists are bulleted, numbered and/or alphabetical lists properly tagged
  • Links are properly tagged with a <Link> tag, a Link OBJR tag, and a content tag
  • All Acrobat Comment and Markup items must be removed from the document. The presence of Comment and Markup items will adversely affect the screen reader’s ability to correctly interpret the document.


  • All images, grouped images, and non-text elements that convey information have alternative text descriptions
  • Document is free of scanned images of text   
  • Decorative images marked as background   
  • Complex images provide a reference to the descriptive text of the image
  • Multiple associated images on the same page (e.g., boxes in an organization chart) grouped as one object
  • All multi-layered objects been flattened into one image and has one Alternative Text (Alt Tag) been provided for this image
  • Decorative images that do not convey information have an empty Alternative Text (Alt Text) (i.e,
  • Images/graphics appear crisp and legible.
  • Prioritize information in text alternative: Try to put the most important information at the beginning.


  • All data tables in the document have Row and Column headers
    o    Start with TURO to highlight table > Right click on table > select Table Editor > click inside cell to set Table Cell Properties
  • Header rows repeat across pages if the table is multiple pages
  • Data cells in the tables logically associated with the Row/Column Header elements
  • Tables used to create a tabular structure (not tabs or spaces)
  • Data tables in the document have a logical reading order from left to right, top to bottom
  • Simple tables have scoping applied to the appropriate Row/Column Headers
  • Complex tables have id and header attributes to associate the data cells with the column/row headers
  • Document has a tabular appearance, that tabular structure made using the table option (as opposed to manual tabs and/or spaces)
  • Data cells set so they do not split across pages
  • All tables described and labeled (where appropriate) Note: In some cases naming/numbering of tables may not be appropriate. For example, a small data table in a presentation may not need a reference.


  • Form fields have correct labels and markups
  • Checkboxes and radio buttons should appear left of text description (Acrobat: Labeling Radio Buttons for Accessibility)
  • Form fields keyboard accessible
  • All options within the form choices keyboard accessible

Other Helpful Info

  • According to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services ( - PDFs do not need to be 508 compliant if a compliant HTML version of the document exists. 
  • Acrobat’s security settings can be set to protect document content while not interfering with a screen reader’s ability to convert the on-screen text to speech or Braille

Headers and Footers

  • Users of screen reading technology hear this content, it can be confusing to discern which information is part of the main page content versus the header/footer information - header/footer content needs to be placed appropriately in the reading order or made an artifact.
  • Non-unique header/footer content, for example, the repeated company name on each page, needs to be tagged only on the first page. It is recommended to leave the content visually on the page, but to tag the repeated content as an artifact.
  • Unique content such as notes, footnotes, remarks, etc., the content needs to be placed appropriately in the reading order.


  • When watermarks are inserted in source documents, the watermark content sometimes gets tagged as content on each page of the document. It is best to avoid watermarks, but if they are needed they should be added from within Acrobat so that the watermark is properly tagged.
  • When adding watermarks in Acrobat, document authors need to be mindful of the color contrast of the watermark. By selecting an appropriate shade of color and adjusting the opacity, watermarks will not conflict with page content.

To add or update a watermark in Acrobat X:

  1. Navigate to and activate Tools.
  2. Navigate to and expand Pages.
  3. Under Edit Page Design, activate the Watermark link.
  4. Locate and activate Add Watermark… or Update…
  5. Confirm the Add Watermark/Update Watermark dialog appears.

For text watermarks, the font color and shade of the text can be changed through the color picker button.

For both text and graphic watermarks the opacity can be changed with the opacity slider or by editing the percentage next to the slider control.

Alternate Text

  • Meaningful and concise alternate text should not be more than 255 characters.

Complex Images

  • For complex images, charts and diagrams that need longer descriptions than alternate text can provide (255 characters or less), text should be placed in-line, in a footnote or in an appendix to appropriately describe the image. When a description is provided within a footnote or appendix, a link should be provided from the image or caption of the image to the description.
  • Charts, graphs and other complex images should be flattened (made into a jpeg, gif for png) and replaced in the original native file like Word or InDesign with alternate text..

Decorative Images and Remnants

  • Decorative images and drawing remnants should be turned into artifacts to guarantee they do not interrupt the flow of important information. Sometimes during the conversion process lines, arrows, borders, and other shapes are not automatically converted as artifacts. These items can be changed into artifacts by locating the object in the tag tree and selecting “Change Tag to Artifact…” on that object’s context menu.
  • Examples of content that should become artifacts are unmarked content, drawing remnants, decorative images, redundant and duplicate information repeated on every page, such as header or footer content, line spacers and other content that is meant to be visually appealing, but not to provide pertinent information. Any tagged content that is not tagged as an artifact will be indicated by ATs.
  • Check that the text and/or remnants are not present in the document by highlighting the content in the main document and selecting Find Tag from Selection on the Context menu of any tag in the Tags tree. A dialog box should pop up stating that the selection was not found. Alternatively, a screen reader can be used to read through that section of the document to ensure the content is hidden.

Table of Contents

  • Create TOC for PDFs with 20+ pages.


  • Create Bookmarks for PDFs with 20+ pages.

Insert, replace or delete pages

When you insert, replace, or delete pages, Acrobat accepts existing tags into the tag tree of the consolidated PDF in the following manner:

  1. When you insert pages into a PDF, Acrobat adds the tags (if any) for the new pages to the end of the tag tree. This order occurs even if you insert the new pages at the beginning or the middle of the document.
  2. When you replace pages in a PDF, Acrobat adds the tags (if any) from the incoming pages to the end of the tag tree. This order occurs even if you replace pages at the beginning or the middle of the document. Acrobat retains the tags (if any) for the replaced pages.
  3. When you delete pages from a PDF, Acrobat retains the tags (if any) of the deleted pages.

Pages whose tags are out of order in the logical structure tree can cause problems for screen readers. Screen readers read tags in sequence down the tree, and possibly do not reach the tags for an inserted page until the end of the tree. To fix this problem, use Acrobat Pro to rearrange the tag tree. Place large groups of tags in the same reading order as the pages themselves.  To avoid this step, plan on inserting pages to the end of a PDF, building the document from front to back in sequence.

The tags that remain from a deleted or replaced page don’t connect to any content in the document. Essentially, they are large pieces of empty tag tree sections. These redundant tags increase the file size of the document, slow down screen readers, and can cause screen readers to give confusing results. For best results, make tagging the last step in the conversion process.

Use Acrobat Pro to delete the tags of deleted pages from the tag tree.

Changing Reading Order

  • To change the reading order, drag (or copy and paste) the <H2> tag above the paragraph tag. Once the order of the content matches the implied visual layout, AT users can accurately interpret the content.
  • If you created the document in Word 8, 9, 10 the reading order should be okay.


Think of the structure of lists and list items as a family tree. There are the parents, which are the main list items. Then there are the children, or sub-lists, under one parent item. All list items contained at the same level can be thought of as siblings. In Adobe Acrobat, each list structure must consist of a parent <L> tag and subsequent list item <LI> tags for each item in the list. If there are a total of three fruits listed, then there needs to be three <LI> tags in the structure. Each list item <LI> tag must contain a label <Lbl> tag that includes the number or bullet and a list item body <LBody> tag that contains the text of the item.

Check lists that span across multiple pages. Even though a list continues on to another page, it is important that in the tag structure those list items are part of the original list and not a list of their own. Attention to detail of these items enables users to associate related content and know the total number of related items.

Form building tips

Do not use “Auto Field Recognition” - fields are named without hierarchical order.  Create field objects manually.

Final steps in completing a form, you should open the form in Acrobat, press the tab key and tab through the form. If the tab order is not logical, you need to make some changes in Form Edit mode.

Use copy and paste to create fields. If there are several fields that are the same, such as dollar amount, set properties > format > number first.

Check boxes can be used like Radio Buttons. Set the Export Value (in Properties)  of each check box to a number:  1, 2, 3, (how many check boxes you have). The Export Value is critical for mutually exclusive fields. It is set to “yes” by default. You should note that “Only one box in the group can be checked” so people will not try and check more than one. (this is not accessible)

(Acrobat: Labeling Radio Buttons for Accessibility)

Form Enabling

Prior to Adobe Reader XI forms authors needed to enable PDF files with special usage rights for Adobe Reader users. What this means is the PDF author needed to save the PDF from Acrobat with an enabling feature that permits the Reader user to save form data.

To enable Adobe Reader users to save form data:

  1. Choose File > Save As > Reader Extended PDF > Enable Additional Features In Adobe Reader.
    The Enable Usage Rights In Adobe Reader message appears.
    These extended privileges are limited to the current PDF.
    When you create a different PDF form, you must perform this task again if you want to enable Reader users to save their own filled-in copies of that PDF.
  2. Click Save Now.
  3. In the Save As dialog box, browse to a location to save the file, enter a file, and click Save.
    Adobe Reader XI no longer requires enablement. When PDFs are enabled with Adobe Reader usage rights, a licensing restriction is imposed by Adobe Systems. Enabled files restrict users to collecting and processing data on a maximum of 500 forms. Now with Adobe Reader XI and elimination for the need of enabling PDFs, there exists no license restriction on the number of forms you can retrieve and collect data.

Field names should be constructed using hierarchical names such as item.1, item.2, etc. or employmentHistory.1, employmentHistory.2, etc. Using field names of a hierarchical order (no spaces and a dot + number) simplifies field construction, editing, calculations and more.

Checkboxes and radio buttons should appear to the left of the text descriptions.

Add reset buttons for sections on complex forms

Fillable forms can be well organized and attractive. Designed with your logo and brand

Turn off the “auto tab order setting” in Forms Preferences. With this checked it, Acrobat will be slow on complex forms.  (Edit > Preferences > select Forms an uncheck auto tab order)

Creating PDF

Preferences > Settings > Create Bookmarks; Add Links; Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF