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Avery Hymel

Are PDFs Accessible? Why are All PDFs Not Accessible by Default?

When working with motivated and capable accessibility professionals, one of the common questions we hear is, “why isn’t accessibility automatic when creating a PDF?”

It is frustrating to realize that the only way to make your document accessible is a manual process that can take significant time, effort, and knowledge.

The logical questions quickly arise – “why aren’t PDFs accessible by default?”, “do document-creation tools even care about accessibility?”, or “is there a better way?”

Improving document accessibility lies mainly with document authors and document-creation software.

PDF Accessibility Starts with Authoring

Document authors play a valuable and powerful role in creating accessible documents. When an author prioritizes accessibility and uses the right tools, they can single-handedly revolutionize the document-creation process at their organization.

On the other hand, a careless or untrained author can cripple an organization’s ability to create accessible content.

An organization leader was once asked, “are your documents are accessible?” They replied quite proudly, “Yes, I can find them whenever I need them.”

This doesn’t demonstrate poor intentions but rather a profound lack of understanding of what document accessibility means. And when a document author lacks the basic knowledge of what document accessibility really means, it could prove disastrous for their organization and all the people that try to read or interact with their content.

An uninformed author may prioritize the appearance of their document over the functionality required for accessibility.

As accessibility experts, we have seen countless beautifully designed documents that cannot be read or navigated with assistive technology. When you only consider how a sighted person experiences a document, you are excluding countless people who have disabilities and use assistive technology to read a document. A good starting point is educating authors, not just about accessibility requirements, but about best practices.

Using the Right Tools is Critical

Document-creation software is the other critical piece of the PDF accessibility pie. An author could be doing everything correctly, but the document will still be noncompliant if the tool they use lacks the necessary functionality.

It’s frustrating when software solutions do not prioritize accessibility. When accessibility is not built into a tool, it delivers a bad user experience for people with disabilities and leave organizations vulnerable to lawsuits.

For example, Microsoft Word—probably the world’s most popular word processor—does not generate Alternate Text for Links, a requirement in PDFs.

With Word, an author can properly hyperlink a line of text and make sure the link target is correct and accounted for, but the generated link would still not have the necessary Alt text in the PDF tags. This is not an ill-intended jab by Microsoft to prevent documents from being accessible, it’s just that Word cannot anticipate the file output.

Because Alt text on Links is not a requirement of .docx files, Word doesn’t support this requirement. While this is a shortcoming of Word, some software options don’t create tagged PDF documents at all.

In other scenarios, generating tagged PDF files is not the default functionality of the software, meaning that if the author is interested in tagging the file correctly, the functionality must be enabled. Finally, and perhaps the most common issue, is that the resulting PDF tags could be completely incorrect, sometimes due to the creation software’s capabilities and other times due to the author’s mistakes.

It’s also worth mentioning that even if a PDF’s tags are correct, assistive technology still has issues with some tag types. Footnotes, for example, are notorious for being handled incorrectly by AT.

Can Accessible PDFs be edited?     

Consider this scenario: An author has worked tirelessly to craft a document with accessibility in mind, followed best practices, and used software that generates accessible PDFs. They even worked with upper management to implement a process that ensures that all future PDFs will be accessible from generation. What a dream! Groups in this scenario, or even newer authors who have spent valuable time and energy remediating a file, typically ask another logical question. “After I have done all this work to fix my PDF, can I still go back and edit it?” The answer is, it depends.

Yes, the PDF can be edited, updated, or changed. PDF editing software, such as Abode Acrobat Pro, can correct a simple spelling mistake or change the date in the document’s footer, for example. Making your PDF accessible does not prevent you from making edits. However, any edits to an existing, accessible PDF can, and probably will, have unintended results, changing the tagging and rendering it inaccessible.

It might also be worth mentioning that the original intent of the PDF file type was for it to be a final file format, meaning that it should not be edited.

In short, this file type indicates the file is “done” and not intended to be edited any further. While we understand this is not always realistic, it should be a goal.

We know that changes and edits need to be made sometimes, however, it is best to avoid remediating and then making additional changes. If a document is still being actively worked on or is still “in progress,” it should be worked on in a creation software rather than the final PDF form.

For a file still being finalized, we prefer Microsoft Word, despite its shortcomings with hyperlinked text, instead of editing the PDF in Adobe Acrobat.

So even though an accessible PDF can be edited, these edits will likely disrupt the document’s compliance. For this reason, avoid this scenario whenever possible.