Apr 09, 2018

Making PDFs Accessible for School Websites

PDFs are a great way to share documents across different operating systems and devices without losing formatting. But when it comes to school website accessibility, they leave a lot to be desired. Schools don't necessarily have to stop using them entirely, though. Read on for tips on making PDFs more accessible on school websites and alternate ways of presenting information.

What is a PDF, and Why Do They Limit Accessibility?

PDF stands for "Portable Document Format." It is file format created by Adobe, the makers of Acrobat and related software programs. They can contain both text and images. Some PDFs also contain hyperlinks, interactive buttons, and even embedded fonts or videos. They are often created in another program, such as Word or a design program like InDesign, and then saved in PDF format.

PDFs can be opened directly in many browsers and with free software such as Adobe Reader, which can be easily accessed by any Internet user. PDF files look the same no matter what software is used to open them, which makes them an ideal way to share documents in which formatting is important. For schools, this often means documents like enrollment forms for parents to print and fill out, large formatted documents like the student handbook, or student worksheets.

However, PDFs can create problems for people relying on screen readers. When screen readers or search engines encounter a standard PDF, they process them as images. You can tag them with alt-text to tell people what they are, but the screen reader will not be able to read the content inside the document. Since many schools use PDFs for critical parent and student information, this creates a significant accessibility barrier for visually impaired website visitors.

Do You Really Need a PDF?

Before thinking about making PDFs more accessible, the first question that school website administrators should ask themselves is whether a PDF is needed at all. In many cases, information can be just as easily presented as a regular webpage using HTML for formatting. Limiting the use of PDFs on your school website can significantly increase accessibility.

However, some information may be best presented as a PDF. This includes:

  • Documents intended to be printed where formatting is important (such as worksheets and forms containing a mix of text, images and response areas)
  • Complex, multi-page documents

Sometimes, you may want to consider providing both: an HTML version of the full text, with a link to a PDF for sighted visitors who prefer to download or print the information.

Creating Accessible PDFs

Fortunately, it is possible to create PDFs that are accessible to screen readers and search engines. Accessible PDFs use tags and navigation aids that are very similar to those used in HTML when creating an accessible webpage.

Accessible PDFs share several key features:

  • Fonts that allow characters to be extracted as text rather than simply as an image
  • Navigational aids (links, bookmarks, table of contents, and tabs) that allow screen reader users to navigate directly to the portion of the document that they want to read
  • Security settings that allow assistive technologies to access the text
  • Alt-text descriptions for images, form fields, and links
  • Appropriate use of heading and subheading tags (e.g. H1, H2, etc.) that provide a logical structure and reading order for the text

Accessible PDFs can be created in Adobe Acrobat Pro or in another tool that supports tagging, such as Microsoft Word. The completed document must then be saved as a tagged PDF.

Adding Accessibility Features to Existing PDFs

Many schools have existing PDFs that were not initially created as accessible PDFs. Often, these are legacy documents, and the original text or design files may no longer exist. In some cases, it may be possible to convert these documents to accessible documents using Adobe Acrobat Pro.

To fix an existing PDF, first convert to text. This is possible only if the original PDF includes text information. If the original was saved as an image-only PDF, this may not be possible.

The next step is to add the necessary structure, tags, and links to the document and resave as a tagged PDF. This includes alt-text on images, heading and subheading tags, and all of the other accessibility elements described above.

If the original PDF cannot be converted to an accessible PDF, schools will need to consider recreating the document from scratch or providing an alternate means for visually impaired visitors to get the information. As this can be a lengthy process, have a backup plan to help visitors in the meantime. Make sure that PDFs, like images and other webpage elements, are appropriately tagged so visitors know what they are. If they are not accessible to screen readers, let them know what they can do to get the information (i.e., "Website visitors using screen readers can call us at [PHONE] for more information about [TOPIC].").

Creating accessible PDFs, or providing alternate methods of getting important information, will go a long way towards reducing frustration for visually impaired visitors to your school website. For more information, check out the Adobe Accessibility Guide.