Learning how to make PDFs WCAG compliant can feel daunting, and it certainly needs to be approached with thought and care. Once you are aware of the intent behind WCAG and how they function in a PDF, ensuring the accessibility of digital PDFs can become second nature. In our work with healthcare translations, more of our clients such as pharmacy benefit managers and health plans are beginning to operate under new requirements around WCAG. Whereas previously they could use the same PDF as both a print and a digital resource, now any PDF posted online must comply with WCAG.
There is a vast wealth of knowledge available online regarding accessibility of web and digital content. We will not attempt to cover it all here! Our goal in this post is to give an overview of how to make PDFs WCAG compliant, as well as common issues that arise and how to fix them as effectively and efficiently as possible. It will also focus on utilizing the Accessibility Checker in Adobe Acrobat, particularly on PDFs that have been exported from Adobe InDesign.
What does it even mean for a PDF to be accessible, or WCAG-compliant? It means that the contents of the PDF are accessible to individuals with disabilities. Many of the checks Adobe Acrobat does for accessibility revolve around assistive technology. One example of assistive technology is a screen reader that read the contents of the PDF out loud.
WCAG stands for web content accessibility guidelines, and they are developed by the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). Compliance with WAI’s WCAG is widely regarded as the international standard for web accessibility, but it is not the only standard for ensuring that digital resources are accessible to individuals with disabilities. WCAG also encompasses much more than PDFs. WAI has a wealth of resources available on their website, and we’d recommend taking a look at them to gain a better understanding of web accessibility. When creating accessible PDFs, it is especially important to understand the basics of assistive technology.
As we’ve said, if you’re not familiar with how to make PDFs WCAG compliant, there is a lot to learn! But we’ll get started with some basics.
Some terms you will need to know
Accessibility check: A function in Adobe Acrobat that determines whether a PDF is fully accessible
Accessibility report: An itemized list of the results of the Accessibility Check, typically generated as a web page
Tags panel: A window in Adobe Acrobat that displays how every item in the PDF is tagged
The Tags panel appears on the left-hand side of the Acrobat window, and the icon looks like an old-fashioned price tag.
Reading order: The order in which a screen reader will read each element in the PDF
Reading order panel: A window in Adobe Acrobat that displays the reading order of each element in the PDF
The Reading order panel can be found on the left-hand side of the Acrobat window, and the icon looks like 4 boxes connected by the letter “Z.”
Running an Accessibility Check
If you’ve never done this in Acrobat before, it’s easy! Just do the following:
- Open the PDF you are checking.
- Click on the Tools tab.
- Scroll down and click on Accessibility.
- Click on Accessibility Check on the right-hand panel that pops up.
- Acrobat will ask if you want to save an accessibility report. If you do, check that option and select where to save the report.
Depending on your workflow, you may not need to save a copy of the report until it has passed in all areas.
A panel will pop up with the results of the Accessibility check. We’ll call this the “Accessibility Check panel.” Items that failed or need a manual check (more on that later) will be in bold.
What can go wrong?
This is by no means an exhaustive list of items that may fail during an accessibility check in Acrobat. The examples we’ve chosen are ones that have crossed our desk recently.
You have a few options here. If your PDF was created from an InDesign document and you have access to that document, you can export a tagged PDF.
Open the design document, click File > Export, and select where you want the PDF to be saved. Then a dialogue box will pop up. Select High Quality or Press Quality from the “Adobe PDF Preset” drop-down menu at the top of that dialogue box, and make sure that the “Create a tagged PDF” box is checked.
You can also try the following options in Acrobat:
- Open the Accessibility tool, then click on “Autotag Document” in the right-hand panel that pops up (the same panel where you found the accessibility check).
- Right click on “Tagged PDF” in the Accessibility Check panel and click “Fix.” This will create tags in the PDF.
This error has to do with a file name versus a document title. In many instances these are the same, but there are many examples when it is not. For instance, if you are on an executive board drafting new policies, the document title may be “Organization Policies.” But you make edits to the document and “Save As,” naming the file with your initials and the date: Committee_Policies_CD_022621.
If the file name and the title of your PDF are the same, then this is a very easy fix – just right click on Title in the Accessibility Check panel and select Fix.
If your PDF’s title is different than its file name, right click in the body of the PDF, and select Document Properties. Go to the Description tab, enter your desired title, and click OK. Then right click on Title in the Accessibility Check panel and select Fix. The title you selected should show up at the top of the PDF (as long as you have Document Title selected in Document Properties > Initial View > Window Options > Show). If it doesn’t, save the PDF and try again. If nothing has changed, close and reopen the PDF after saving.
Headings will need to be nested properly. There are six heading levels in Adobe, with Level 1 (or H1) being at the top of the “hierarchy,” and Level 6 (or H6) being at the bottom. Heading levels are often depicted visually, by using a smaller size or different colored font, or a deeper indent. Assistive technology will not pick up on those cues, so the headings need to be labeled (tagged) accordingly. If your headings are tagged correctly in InDesign then they should be tagged correctly when you export the tagged PDF. If for whatever reason they are not, the accessibility check will fail.
You can adjust heading tags in the design document or in the PDF.
In Adobe InDesign, you can highlight the heading text and reassign it in the Properties window. Then you’ll need to reexport the design document as a Tagged PDF and rerun your Accessibility Check.
Or, in the PDF, right click the failing item in the Tags panel and select Properties. On the Tag tab of the Object Properties dialogue box, select the correct Type. Then hit save and rerun your Accessibility Check.
If you have a numbered or bulleted list in your PDF, each item will need to be appropriately nested. Like with headings, there is a hierarchy of list items. For instance, all bullets that align at the same left-hand position should have the same designation. In the example at right, all the numbers should be designated as List 1 (L1), while all the letters should be designated as List 2 (L2). If you have list items nested out of order, the Accessibility Check will fail.
Incorrect list items tags can be corrected in InDesign or in Acrobat, in the same way as Headings.
Alternate text is a must for any PDF with images that are not purely decorative. To allow someone who is blind or has low vision to gather meaning from a visual, it must be accompanied by descriptive text. To add alternate text, select the Accessibility tool in Acrobat. In the right-hand panel (see image above), click on Set Alternate Text. Acrobat will let you know that it is searching for anything tagged as a Figure (aka, an image), and you will have to click OK. Then each image in the PDF will be highlighted and a dialogue box will pop up with a space for you to write a description. If the image is purely decorative, there will be an option to select “Decorative figure” in the text box. When considering whether something is decorative, think about whether it contributes to understanding the written content. If it does, include alternate text. If it doesn’t (for example, an image of a star in a PDF about how to check your blood sugar), then alternate text can be distracting.
If, as you are setting alternate text, you notice that an image does not get highlighted, that probably means that it is not tagged as a Figure. So, head back to your Tags panel and fix it!
Other things to keep in mind
PDFs can be created from several file types, not just InDesign documents. Microsoft Word is another popular option, and has its own accessibility checker. We can dive deeper into that in another post. In the meantime, Microsoft has published some articles about their accessibility checker that may be helpful to you: an accessibility checker overview and more detailed information about rules, errors, warning, and tips.
Since we are a language services company, we have to include a note about translated PDFs! When possible, the language, title, keywords, and alternate text for the PDF should all be translated into the target language. You can find the first 3 of these items by right clicking the PDF and opening the Document Properties. Title and keywords are on the first tab (Description), while language is on the last (Advanced). You can replace alternate text with their translations the same way you entered the alternate text in the source language (see above).
If you have some first-hand experience with how to make PDFs WCAG compliant, we’d love to hear about it. Head over to the Language Solutions Facebook page or tweet at @langsolinc and share your expertise with us and our followers!