Avery Hymel

Does WCAG Apply to PDFs?

Yes, WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) applies to PDF documents. These guidelines help ensure that PDFs are accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

PDF – Portable Document Format – is one of the most prevalent digital document formats, and it is used by individuals and organizations all over the world. There are a number of reasons behind that, primarily because PDF documents can be viewed, accessed or even modified on any device, regardless of the environment in which they were originally created.

But, not all PDFs are created equal. A PDF document not created with digital accessibility in mind may not be accessible if everyone cannot easily open, access, read, and navigate the document. And, when we say everyone, we include people with disabilities like vision, hearing, mobility, and cognitive impairment.

To solve the digital document inaccessibility problem, a set of universally accepted guidelines pave the way for compliance.

What is WCAG?

WCAG, or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, is a set of guidelines developed by W3C in cooperation with individuals and organizations worldwide.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community where the public, member organizations, and full-time staff collaborate to develop web standards. It’s the main international standards organization for the web.

WCAG outlines how to make digital content more accessible to people with disabilities. Anything you access on the internet regularly falls under the purview of web content, such as images, videos, sounds, text, or even color or markup that defines structure and presentation.

Who is WCAG intended for?

WCAG and its related resources and information are primarily intended for web content developers (website designers and engineers, page authors, etc.), web accessibility evaluation tool developers, web authoring tool developers, and anyone else who wants or needs a standard for web accessibility.

If a digital asset, like a website, app, or document, meets WCAG guidelines, it generally means it is accessible.

Does WCAG apply to PDF documents?

Yes, WCAG applies to PDF documents to ensure they are accessible to people with disabilities.

WCAG 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2 are technical standards with 12-13 guidelines that are organized under four main principles referred to as POUR:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust

Each guideline has testable success criteria at three levels: A, AA and AAA. A is the lowest level of compliance, and AAA is the highest. You should comply with AA at a minimum.

To learn more about the principles and guidelines of web accessibility, check out this resource by W3C.

The latest standard of WCAG is WCAG 2.2, which was released in October 2023. Note that it wasn’t intended to replace WCAG 2.0 or 2.1. If a webpage or, by extension, a PDF, passes at the WCAG 2.2 AA level, it will also pass 2.1 AA and 2.0 AA.

You can read more about WCAG 2.1 and PDF Accessibility in this article.

What if your PDF doesn’t comply with WCAG guidelines?

If your PDF doesn’t comply with WCAG guidelines, it probably fails accessibility. This puts your organization at risk of being targeted in an accessibility-related lawsuit.

For this reason alone, it’s critical to verify your PDFs’ accessibility.

The good news is that you can do that easily by using our free PDF accessibility checker – CommonLook PDF Validator.

PDF Validator provides users with a certification report for each tested document.