April 30 2020

Making PDFs ADA Conformant

ADA PDF conformanceWith website accessibility lawsuits at an all-time high and no slowdown expected, website managers need to ensure that all aspects of a website comply with the latest guidelines (WCAG 2.1). While it is always recommended from an ADA and SEO perspective to have content be in a web page instead of a PDF, there is still a need to offer PDF content on some websites. The process of making PDFs ADA conformant can be very simple or more complex, so it’s important to understand what can make this more efficient and ultimately result in an end-product that meets web accessibility standards.

The Purpose of PDFs

Adobe created Acrobat and the PDF in the early 1990s so that content with complex formatting can be shared across different devices. Acrobat was complicated and expensive software but Acrobat Reader was free and relatively small and allowed PDFs to be opened everywhere by everybody – allowing for the content to look the same for all. Acrobat Reader is no longer necessary as modern Internet browsers like Safari, Chrome, and Firefox open PDFs natively, but PDFs still have a place in the world, for now.

Are PDFs Necessary on the Web?

If PDFs were created to share content across devices but now, different browsers are able to show content in the same way, do we still need the PDF on websites? Sometimes. Content with complex formatting benefits from being presented in a PDF. Newsletters and Annual Reports are often full of complex formatting with overlapping images, backgrounds, and dense tables. And a select few forms that can’t be submitted online because of encryption needs could benefit from being a PDF. However, for less complex visual or other purposes, such as fee schedules, terms and conditions or FAQs, the content should be created as pages in the CMS to enable them to be easily read, maintained, and indexed for search.

Take Measures to Avoid Potential Website ADA Errors

When a PDF does need to be used, what is the best way to make it accessible? The trick is to not wait until the content is in a PDF to address conformance against current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. It can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive to work with Acrobat to make a PDF accessible, if it can be made accessible in Acrobat at all.

Microsoft Word, however, makes it relatively simple. Since at least 2013, Microsoft Word has had a “Check Accessibility” feature. Each version of Word is different, but in the latest version, click on the toolbar and under the “Review” tab, click on the “Check Accessibility” feature. This helpful tool will quickly scan the Word document and not just provide results but provide a method for fixing an issue. The checker can be running as the document is being created so that potential issues can be nipped in the bud.

The “Check Accessibility” feature cannot ensure that color contrasts are conformant so use the same colors the same way they are used on your conformant website and you know they will comply. Also, while the tool can ensure that images have alt tags, it’s up the document editor to ensure that they are descriptive alts.

After accessibility has been confirmed in Word, create your PDF by going to “Save As,” choose “PDF” as the file type, and select “Options.” In “Options,” tick the checkbox for “Document structure tags for accessibility” and save the file. After the PDF has been created, Acrobat will still be necessary to ensure the file is entirely accessible.

Rely on Acrobat for the Final Step

After Microsoft Word has produced accessible content for a PDF, the last step must be taken in Acrobat. Open the PDF’s Properties from the “File” menu and provide a Title in the “Description” tab and set the Language in the “Advanced” tab.

Don’t Have Acrobat?

While it is difficult to produce accessible content within Acrobat, it is easy and reliable for taking the last accessibility step of providing a title and language. But what if you don’t have Acrobat? There are free tools available and one worth trying is PAVE, a tool created at a Swiss university.

Whether you are retroactively making a website conformant or maintaining an existing website against WCAG 2.1 standards, it’s important to evaluate what files truly need to be PDFs and what can be made into web pages in your CMS. For files that must remain as PDFs, you will need to individually assess the work involved to make them conformant, which can range from easy, to difficult to even impossible in some cases. For help making PDFs conformant or assessing the right conformance strategy for PDF files, reach out to a ZAG Interactive conformance expert.

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posted by
Dan Seagull
Dan Seagull
Sr. QA & Certified Accessibility Analyst

ZAG Interactive is a full-service digital agency in Glastonbury, CT, offering website design, development, marketing and digital strategy to clients nationwide. See current job openings.
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