26 March 2018

Beginners guide for understanding accessible PDFs

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

As your organization grows your users become more reliant on your website for information. You may offer information in the appearance of a blog post, a link to an external site, or even downloadable materials like forms and other resources.

It’s common to take the document, whether it be a .doc or .xls or .pdf or maybe even a .jpg and upload it. While your website can provide these materials in these formats, not all are created equal when they come to being accessible.

Today we are going to tackle the questions related to providing accessible PDF’s on your website.

What is an accessible PDF?

The key distinction from other documents is that a PDF is portable. PDF is an abbreviation and it, in fact, stands for “portable document file”. This utilitarian file can be read through a variety of browsers, as well as on many devices without specially licensed software.

The distinction between accessible and non-accessible comes down to how they are packaged. PDF files with assistive technology allows for those who need to use screen readers, screen magnifiers or braille devices to access the data within through the following 5 characteristics.

  1. A logical structure and reading order. The document uses behind-the-scene tags to create a logical structure and reading order for the information to be read aloud.
  2. Alternative text descriptions for figures, form fields, and links. Descriptive alternative information is added to elements not presented as text but as visual elements. This allows the end user to hear a description of what they otherwise may not be able to see.
  3. Navigational Aids. Similar to on web pages, these elements empower a user to go to a specific point in the document instead of reading through it page by page. They may be designed as a table of contents or links that correspond to sections on specific topics.
  4. Security that doesn’t interfere with assistive technology. When saving the PDF document, authors have the ability to imposed restrictions on the end users ability to print, copy, extract, and save. This may negatively affect the ability for on-screen text to speech readers to provide the information to those who need it. Accessible PDFs ensure the content is accessible, not matter which security permissions are implemented.
  5. Fonts that allow characters to be extracted to text. The fonts used within an accessible PDF contain sufficient information for Adobe, or other PDF readers, to read, copy or print each time the document is opened. If the information is not sufficient for the reader, characters or words may be missing, or blank boxes or question marks may replace the characters when the document is converted to text to save, copy or print.

Computer error

When are there downsides to PDFs?

While PDFs are a standard in many industries there are some hazards to using them that should be taken into consideration first.

waiting for a slow site to load


  • PDFs are slower to load than a traditional HTML webpage. As users migrate to using mobile devices more and more having a document that takes 30 seconds to load instead of 5 sections may increase the number of dropoffs your site sees.
  • While an accessible PDF has the benefit of ensuring that the information is always correctly presented, they are not responsive. This means that for any user not using a traditional computer they may have trouble reading the information or need to scroll through the document if they zoomed in to make it legible.
  • It is also easy to forget that all content, especially PDFs on one’s site also need to be updated.  Many organization publish a PDF but never review the content and provide updates as they do traditional HTML web pages. This could mean a very important document is being accessed and used by end users but is completely out-of-date!


So when should I use a PDF?

While most of the time AmDee recommends our clients to convert PDF’s into actual pages on their website, there are uses a few uses where a PDF is still the premier document.

man looking at security lock

  • The document needs to be portable. It will be opened, read and or printed by many computers and operating systems


  • The information within the document needs to be portrayed to the user or completed by the user in precise ways.


  • If a form contains sensitive information (like HIPAA) it’s better to use a PDF instead of storing the data in WordPress or a CMS.


  • If it isn’t intended to be submitted, like a self-evaluation, or it needs to be delivered in person.


  • If it requires a lot of time to fill out or requires the user to collect various materials they may not have readily available.



Accessibility means making your content available to as many people as possible. However, there are specific instances when it is less than ideal to convert a PDF document into a webpage.

If it’s an absolute necessity for your organization to have PDFs on your website, its an absolute necessity you also ensure they meet the 5 characteristics so they are accessible to all of your users.



Other articles you may be interested in

Why accessibility continues to matter

3 important reasons for web accessibility.


Elyssa Respaut

Elyssa works as an occasional writer when not otherwise managing projects.