Make PDF files compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0)

While enhancing accessibility and usability are the goals of WCAG 2.0, the overall benefits to website owners in making PDF files that meet the WCAG 2.0 web standards include:

  • To eliminate the cost and effort of creating both PDF and HTML versions of publications;
  • To improve usability;
  • To make content more relevant and easier to find;
  • To increase SEO search engine rankings;
  • To draw more traffic to the site; and
  • To help your search engines and your target audience increasing their awareness of your content.

The Basics

WCAG is a set of recommendations for making Web content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitive and combinations of these. It will also often make Web content more usable to users in general.

Content should only be made available on a website once it is 100% compliant.

Each success criterion in WCAG 2.0 begins with the words "The intent of this Success Criterion is to…". Unlike WCAG 1.0, which was strictly based on implementing technology, the true test of whether your web pages pass or fail is whether you meet The Intent. Everything else is meant to assist and support you in reaching that objective. Even some WCAG experts miss this point.

There are 38 success criterion that make up WCAG 2.0. These are categorised into 4 principles and 12 guidelines (also known as the P.O.U.R. principles):

1. Perceivable

1.1.    Text Alternatives: Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.

1.2.    Time-based Media: Provide alternatives for time-based media.

1.3.    Adaptable: Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example simpler layout) without losing information or structure.

1.4.    Distinguishable: Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.

2. Operable

2.1.    Keyboard Accessible: Make all functionality available from a keyboard.

2.2.    Enough Time: Provide users enough time to read and use content.

2.3.    Seizures: Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.

2.4.    Navigable: Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are. For example: table of contents, page thumbnails, be able to find content (search, skip to content) and determine where they are (proper page title)

3. Understandable

3.1.    Readable: Make text content readable and understandable.

3.2.    Predictable: Make PDF appear and operate in predictable ways.

3.3.    Input Assistance: Help users avoid and correct mistakes.

4. Robust

4.1.    Compatible: Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies by using the simplest tools first. For example, don’t use JavaScript if something can be done without.

In order to meet the guidelines, normative sections of the guidelines must be followed while informative sections are just suggestions.

A Few Tips to Get You Started

The following is a list of things to watch out for when creating content that will be turned into a PDF file. Please refer to the WCAG 2.0 Guidelines for a complete list of the criteria.

Content Authors

Content authors are those who write the content but may not be involved in preparing the page layout.

It is always preferable and easier to add accessibility using the application used to create the content such as Word and InDesign rather than to fix up a PDF afterwards. That way, if there are any changes to be made to the content, you don’t have to redo all the accessibility work again.

To this end, Content Authors should:

  • Structure: Ensure a logical structure of the document and flow of the text. Avoid floating objects such as frames, textboxes and images that are set to have text wrap around it. Keep your layout as simple as possible.
  • Headings: Ensure that text is tagged appropriately as Titles and Headings and are used in the correct order.
  • Text: Ensure good colour contrast with background (see Colour Contrast Analyser tool below). A minimum font size of 12 points is recommended. A smaller font size can be used as long as the text magnifies correctly when you zoom in. Don’t use colour to convey information unless there is a secondary alternative which can be interpreted by a screen reader (example: bold or italic).
  • Formatting: Ensure that spaces, tabs and tables are not used for formatting. Columns should be used instead.
  • Language: Ensure that the text is set to the appropriate language (example: French) so that screen readers know how to pronounce words correctly.
  • Images: Add text alternatives for non-text content such as images and long descriptions for graphs and charts. Note that the descriptions should just be factual and not interpret the information presented in the image. No alternative text is required for decorative text. Do not make images wrap around text. Word does not know how to properly handle this when it comes to accessibility.
  • Navigation: Ensure that navigation for content is included. For example: clickable table of contents. If using MS Word, use the built-in feature to generate a Table of Contents.
  • Tables: Ensure tables are simple, include descriptions and are accessible enabled. Always include a title for tables.
  • Links: Should include descriptive text. For example: Click here for more information about XYZ should be More information about XYZ.
  • Lists: Use built-in list feature for lists so that they can be read correctly by screen readers.
  • Document Summary Information: Ensure that the document summary information is specified including:
    • Title
    • Author
    • Subject
    • Category
    • Keywords
    • Comments
    • Never use CutePDF, JawsPDF, PDFill, PromoPDF or other PDF printer or scan a document. These never create accessible PDF files.

Designers

Note: Adobe products for page layout such as InDesign do a good job of creating accessible PDF files if you are conscious of the impact your actions have during the creation process.

In addition to verifying that the above was correctly included, the layout designer should ensure:

  • Ensure that PDF can be navigated using a keyboard.
  • Ensure proper tabbing order.
  • Ensure that navigation for content is included. For example: clickable table of contents, thumbnails.
  • Ensure tables are simple and accessible enabled.

You should always test a PDF for WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA compliance, not just assume it.

Additional Specific Tips for Microsoft Word

Use Microsoft Word 2010 or later. Older versions did not have accessibility features.

  • Set the default language of Word before starting to work on a document. To do this, click File > Options > Language > Editing Language. This will set the language for all alternative text as there is no other way to do this.
  • The default colour for headings in Word does not provide sufficient contrast. Changing this to black is recommended.
  • Don’t use floating images in MS Word. Use inline images instead. If you must use a floating image, do it in Acrobat Professional.
  • Use repeat row as header to identify header row in tables.
  • You can set the alternative text for images by right clicking on the image and selecting Format Picture. Then click on Alt (or Alternative) text.
  • Add captions to images.
  • If you are including text that is not in the documents default language, you will need to highlight the text and set it to the correct language.
  • Before saving your document as a PDF, use the MS Office Accessibility Checker. Click File > Info > Check for Issues > Check Accessibility to ensure that there are no issues.
  • Save the file as a PDF in Word:
    • Click the File tab, and then click Save As.
    • Click the arrow at the Save as type field, and select PDF.
    • Click Options.
    • Make sure that the Document structure tags for accessibility check box is selected.
    • Make sure that the Bitmap text when fonts may not be embedded check box is not selected. Bitmap text cannot be read by a screen reader.
    • Click OK.
    • Click Save.
  • Finally, check your PDF file using the PDF Accessibility Checker (PAC). While the above process should get you about 95% of the way to WCAG 2.0 compliance, you may discover some issues that can be easily addressed. Others will require that you use Adobe Acrobat Professional to fix.

Additional Information and Tools

For additional information and resources on WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA, see:


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