June 3, 2024, by Laura Nicholson

Making PDFs Accessible: Why and How?

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As we prepare for our second Accessibility Conference (online and free to attend) on June 26th, 2024, I have decided to dedicate this month to writing a few blog posts focused on accessibility. It’s also timely for me, given that I’ve recently been co-developing training materials that highlight the importance of making PDFs accessible and provide practical strategies for doing so. 

General principles and information around PDFs

PDFs can compress high-quality content into a relatively small file size, making them easy to share, store, and print, but because of their many production methods, it is difficult to suggest best practices. The British Government Digital Service has recommended HTML or Word as an alternative to PDFs for online information since 2018, due to the challenges they pose in terms of accessibility. 

If PDFs are used as a resource, where possible, the original file formats, such as Word documents or the PowerPoint presentation, should also be provided. Why? Because of the many drawbacks PDFs pose when it comes to accessibility, for example, PDFs do not resize to fit the browser and so require the user to zoom and scroll, making reading long documents problematic. Image-only PDFs are not designed for screen reading and can pose challenges for assistive technology users, and locked PDFs put an extra, unnecessary barrier in place, preventing easy adjustment of the content to make it more accessible. 

PDF conversion tools

SensusAccess logo

The Sensus Access Logo

While more of an editing tool than a conversion tool, Adobe Acrobat Pro can be used to edit any PDFs you have created to make them more accessible. However, you do need a license for this software, so what are the alternatives?

Sensus Access is a document conversion service that enables the conversion of documents into a more preferred format and is embedded into the University of Nottingham Moodle site. Using this tool will allow students to convert PDFs into their preferred format, such as eBooks, audio, or Word documents. That said, if the PDFs haven’t been authored with accessibility in mind, difficulties with navigation can remain as sensus access converts the PDFs; it doesn’t correct, e.g., untagged headings. 

Another option could be to use HTML content. A benefit of HTML is that the text editors in Moodle use HTML, allowing key information to be shared directly on the module page. Not keen on this idea? Well, the most common method of creating PDFs remains through Microsoft Word, so let’s take a closer look at this option. 

Accessible PDF creation

To ensure greater accessibility, it is better to work in web format as much as possible. If, for whatever reason, you need to work with PDF documents, it is important to ensure they are authored to follow accessibility principles, such as

  • Organise content using tagged headings.
  • Alternate (alt) text for images
  • Correctly formatted lists
  • Tables are being used for data rather than text, and ensure they have header rows and good alt text.

If you do not have access to PDF editing tools, you can create the content as a Word document first and then save it as a PDF; any accessible features such as headings and alt text in the Word document will be preserved if saved correctly.

icon for microsoft word document.

Saving a Word document to a PDF

When it comes to saving a Word document to a PDF, you just change the drop-down save as menu from docx to save as PDF. You may have the option to ‘print to PDF’ but this is not advised. Print to PDF is optimised for file sizes, which makes it easier to transfer to a printer. So if you select print to PDF, it will reduce file size, but unfortunately, in doing so, it will delete a lot of digital accessibility information, such as tags, as these are not deemed necessary to keep if the document is to be printed. So, if you ‘save to PDF’ rather than ‘print to PDF, you will preserve more of the accessibility features.

Ultimately, prioritising accessibility in document creation is essential to creating an inclusive digital environment and will benefit everyone by removing unnecessary barriers.

Sorry, for UoN colleagues only

University of Nottingham sign

Nottingham sign, University Park

For guidance on how to create accessible Word documents, please see the Nottingham Accessibility Practices (NAPs).

For more guidance specifically in relation to PDFs, please see the accessibility guide on Creating Accessible PDFs.

Learning Technology also delivers four central short courses, supporting staff with accessible creation for teaching and learning. Each is introductory, online, and an hour long, with time for discussion and questions and answers.

After attending the courses, you will have the knowledge and resources you need to start creating more accessible teaching and learning materials.

Posted in AccessibilityConferencesCourses & trainingLearning designNottingham Accessibility Practices