The Complete Guide To Accessibility Standards For Your PDF

We come across digital content almost every day in our lives. Even unknowingly, it plays a significant role in our lives. So, be it videos, images, or documents, the generous presence of digital content can be felt subtly but definitely!

But what about those who are cognitively disabled or visually impaired? Are they as affected as the others?

According to the CDC, 61 million Americans live with some disability, with younger adults being more susceptible to and living with a cognitive disability. Since young adults are more engaged in accessing digital content, those with hearing and visual disabilities are affected the most. Therefore, it is significant to be prepared as per the accessibility standards to make documents and PDFs available and accessible to such people.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has taken several significant steps to eliminate this discrimination resulting from the inability of cognitively disabled persons to access and comprehend documents. However, creating a PDF that meets all the requirements of the ADA and the WCAG about the accessibility of PDFs can be challenging. It requires thorough research and a good understanding of the accessibility standards. Therefore, let us try and understand how to comply with accessibility standards for a PDF completely.

Creating a Logical Structure

The foremost thing to do to comply with these accessibility standards is to stick to a simple and logical structure. Difficult as it is to comprehend lengthy documents, complicated PDFs can be even more stressful for screen readers and cognitively disabled persons. You must, therefore, create an understandable flow of content by defining the reason order with the help of bookmarks and identifying sections and paragraphs. One significant way of increasing information in an accessible PDF is using PDF tags. These tags will allow the document to be resized and reflowed for different viewing sizes and devices.

To clearly understand the accessibility standards, one can undertake PDF accessibility training, which is meant to develop the understanding of an individual intending to create PDFs with accessibility standards.

This PDF training can help you create appropriately tagged documents and address more advanced tools!

Less is More

When it comes to accessing PDFs, remember, less is more. For accessibility, ensuring the text in your document is high in contrast makes it easily understandable. You can use easy-to-read fonts such as Arial, comic sans MS, etc. Lastly, mind the spacing. Space the lines between the text at least 25% of the point size to ensure that screen readers can easily navigate and move from one line to the other.

Another essential consideration when working with PDFs is the necessity to frequently compare files. This could be to check the consistency of formatting, detect any changes or discrepancies, or even to verify the accessibility features across different versions of the document. Effective file comparison ensures the uniformity and accuracy of your documents, much like maintaining high-contrast text, using easy-to-read fonts, and minding the line spacing.

Selectable Text

When creating a pdf, you must ensure that the text is easily selectable and searchable. Screen readers must be able to edit and manipulate this text for accessibility and convenience. If you’ve previously dealt with PDFs with images, you know that scanned images with text inside the image cannot be extracted or read by screen readers. Scanned images must therefore be avoided to stick to the accessibility standards. You can use the OCR technology if you must work with scanned images. This technology converts image-based text into text, which is selectable and can be easily picked up by a screen reader.

Using Alternative Text Descriptions

Alternative text descriptions can be used when dealing with non-text elements such as images, video, and audio clips. These elements must have a text alternative, also called an ‘alt-text,’ which is a written description conveying the content of the image symbol and how it functions. The alt-text is meant for users with cognitive disabilities and screen readers. Screen readers can, therefore, convey their intended messages within the pdf to the users, and users with visual and cognitive impairments can read along and comprehend what the image or symbols mean. Using alternative text descriptions can therefore help you abide by the accessibility standards.

Set a Defined PDF Language

A defined PDF language can help readers comprehend it well. So, while creating a PDF, make sure you set the language to the one in which the document is written. Speech synthesizers and screen readers display and read PDFs on computer screens. Some screen readers also switch speech synthesizers to hear the content’s correct pronunciation in different languages. Therefore, one must ensure a defined and appropriate language while creating a PDF. Moreover, you can also set a document title for the reader to navigate through the PDF and understand which document they are reading.

To comply with the accessibility standards, it is significant to convey precise data about the link destination within all the hyperlinks in your PDF. This will help the reader know where the link is headed without clicking. For this purpose, you can have a tooltip to explain where the link goes as soon as it is hovered by the users. Screen readers will read link titles and connections in the order they’re inserted in the paragraphs of the page. It is, thus, ideal for conveying such information through hyperlinks.


Therefore, one needs to have a thorough understanding of the accessibility standards to create PDF files that are compliant with the ADA and WCAG norms.

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Steve has entrepreneurship in his DNA. Starting in the early 2000s, Steve achieved eBay Power Seller status which propelled him to become a founding partner of, a contact lens and eyewear retailer. Four years later through a successful exit from that startup, he embarked on his next journey into digital strategy for direct-to-consumer brands.

Currently, Steve is a Senior Merchant Success Manager at Shopify, where he helps brands to identify, navigate and accelerate growth online and in-store.

To maintain his competitive edge, Steve also hosts the top-rated twice-weekly podcast eCommerce Fastlane. He interviews Shopify Partners and subject matter experts who share the latest marketing strategy, tactics, platforms, and must-have apps, that assist Shopify-powered brands to improve efficiencies, profitably grow revenue and to build lifetime customer loyalty.

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