PDF Accessibility Guidelines

This guide assists HFC create accessible and usable PDF documents for various audiences. Increasing the accessibility of web content allows HFC to provide information to users with disabilities such as blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, and photosensitivity. In addition, these guidelines help improve the usability of content in general.


HFC uses an official form template that was developed to ensure PDF accessibility and HFC brand integrity. All forms must be created in or converted to this template before the College can host them on the HFC website. If you are having difficulty creating or modifying a form for accessibility, please contact Rachel Ford, Web Accessibility Manager, regarding training sessions.


PDF is a format designed to specify printable pages. As a result, PDF content is optimized for the size of the paper upon which it is printed and not optimized for web viewing. PDFs are thereby –more difficult to use and navigate on the web than HTML content.

It is extremely important to decide if the content that you wish to use on the web should be in PDF format. As a general rule, content should be placed on a web page and not in a PDF except in the following circumstances:

  • The content is a document that will be downloaded and printed; and/or
  • The content is a document with five or more pages that require presentation in a linear fashion. Examples include manuals or textbooks.

If you decide that your content must be available in PDF format, use this guide to help you properly prepare your PDF for the web and ensure accessibility.

Microsoft Word

The easiest way to create accessible PDFs is to make the source document as accessible as possible. If you are using Microsoft Word to create source documents, the most important step to ensure accessibility is to structure documents well before converting to PDF.

To structure Word Documents properly, please adhere to the following:

  • Keep it Simple: Avoid floating objects such as frames, text boxes, or images with text-wrapping. Keep the layout of your document as simple as possible.

  • Set the Language: Set the language that the document is written in by going to File > Options > Language. In the dialogue that opens up, choose English as the language for all of the options.

  • Document Properties: After saving the document, go to File > Info and click on Properties. In the dropdown menu, select Advanced Properties. Once Advanced Properties is open, fill in the relevant information and specify a title for the document.

  • Use Headings: Use the heading styles in Word to indicate headings. Do not increase font size or use the bold setting. These merely create the appearance of a heading and provide no structure to the document.

  • Text Formatting/Size Use a minimum size of 12pt type and make sure that the text contrasts well with the background. The W3C recommends a 4.5:1 contrast ratio. Also, do not use color to emphasize text—this adds nothing to the document structure. Use styles, such as strong (which looks like bold) or emphasis (which looks like italics) instead. Styles can be found with Headings in the "Home" tab of Word.

  • Make Text Readable: Use left-aligned (not justified) text and avoid having large blocks of capitalized or italicized text. Avoid underlining as well, unless it's a hyperlink.

  • Use Lists: Use bulleted or numbered lists when appropriate. Do not use glyphs or other punctuation (or images) to group related items or mimick lists.

  • Layout: Use columns to organize layouts. Do not use spaces, tabs, or tables to organize information on the page.

  • Data Tables: If you have to display data, use tables with column headings and always include a title or alt for the table. Try to keep the table layout as consistent as possible to make it easier for users to navigate.

  • Images: Make sure to add text descriptions to all images used in the document. The descriptions should include all of the information contained in the image. Depending on the version of Word, there may be one or two fields for alt text. If there are two fields, place alt text in the field labeled "Description".

  • Table of Contents: Use Word's built-in feature to automatically generate a clickable table of contents. Do not create your own.

  • Links: All links should be descriptive (i.e., they should include information about the link and not merely read "click here.")

  • Accessibility Check: To ensure that documents are accessible, run the accessibility checker in Word. Go to File > Info and click on the Inspect Document button. Then in the dropdown menu, select Check Accessibility. A pane will show up on the right-hand side of the page that lists any remaining issues.

Abiding by these guidelines for creating Word documents will provide adequate structure for the PDF conversion process and reduce the amount of subsequent editing needed to the PDF.

Converting to PDF

Once the source document is structured properly, it can be converted to PDF from Microsoft Word. To do this, go to the Acrobat tab and click Preferences. Make sure "Create Bookmarks", "Add Links", and "Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF" are selected. This will ensure that Adobe Acrobat picks up on the accessibility structure built into the document. Once preferences are changed, click Create PDF. Once the PDF is created, you can do some minor editing in Adobe Acrobat Pro as instructed below.

  • Check Tag Tree: If your source document was well structured, there should be minimal editing required. However, it is always good to check. In Acrobat, go to View > Show/Hide > Navigation Panes and click Tags. This will bring up a panel that contains the tag tree. Go through the tree and make sure that all content in the document is tagged. If there is untagged content, remove it in Acrobat or modify it in the source document.

  • Remove Empty Tags: Delete any empty tags in the tag tree.

  • Reading Order: Check that the document flows in the correct order by going to View > Show/Hide > Navigation Panes and clicking Order. If content is out of order, simply drag it into its correct place in the tag tree. Do not rely on the visual presentation of information in the page to guarantee reading order. Use View > Zoom > Reflow to check the reading order visually (remember to uncheck this if you want to go back to editing.)

  • Check Document Language: Make sure that the document language is set by going to File > Properties > Advanced. If a language is not selected, select it here from the menu.

  • Check Images: Check that all images have an alt text description. You can see this is the Order panel. If there are images with missing alt text descriptions, go back to the source document and add them.

  • Check Data Tables: If your source document has data tables, use the Tags Panel to make sure that they are tagged correctly.

  • Check Links: Make sure that all active links are tagged correctly in the Tags Panel and work correctly.

  • Display Document Title: To display the document title instead of the file name, go to File > Properties > Initial View and select Document title from the Show drop down box.

There are other tools in Acrobat Pro available to ensure accessibility. Go to Tools > Accessibility and select Full Check to check the entire document for issues. The Accessibility tool also gives users the ability to correct missing alt text and correctly tag form fields from within Acrobat Pro.

Scanned Documents

Avoid using scanned documents. If you have scanned a document that you want included in a PDF for the web, it must be recreated (using the proper structuring described above) in a publishing program such as Microsoft Word and converted to PDF.

Testing for Accessibility

To ensure that your document is accessible and functions properly, visit the NVDA website and download their open source screen reader application. This will allow you to double-check the order of your document and ensure that it will be read correctly by such devices.

Please note that while third-party applications are available for installation on home computers, they must be installed by ITS on HFC systems. If you need NVDA installed to your HFC computer please submit a request ticket to ITS.

Additionally, Adobe Acrobat Pro has a Read Out Loud function that you can use by going to View > Read Out Loud > Activate Read Out Loud. This is similar to a screen reader and will give you a good idea of how your document might be read by someone using a similar device.