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Creating Accessible PDFs

PDFs and the CSUSM Website (not Canvas)
PDFs are allowed to be uploaded to the campus website BUT it is generally recommended to copy-paste the content onto a web page instead to improve ease-of-access to content.

It is only advised to upload PDFs if the intention is to have end users print the PDF out.

Can I Edit in Word?

Most PDFs are created from text-based processors such as Microsoft Word. It is much easier to create an accessible Word document and then convert it onto a PDF rather than editing in Adobe. PDFs can also be converted back into Word if the original document cannot be accessed. 

To learn how to make scans into accessible PDF documents, please visit our Creating High Quality Scans page

The recommended program to edit PDFs and make them accessible is Adobe Acrobat Pro DC which is free for anyone on our campus to download.

ocr iconOCR a PDF in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC      

Every PDF should be OCRed (optical character recognition) to ensure that all readers can consume the content. OCRed text means that all words in the PDF are recognized as text instead of an image. If any text can be highlighted, then the characters are recognized.

Recognizing Text in a PDF

  1. In the left-hand sidebar ribbon, click on the Scan and OCR option.
  2. A new ribbon will appear at the top of the document. Click Recognize Text and select "in this file" in the drop down. 
  3. In the new ribbon row, confirm that the Language is set to the correct language (default is English), and click the Recognize Text button. 
  4. The document will be scanned and images of text will be transformed into a readable version.

How to OCR a PDF

Accessibilty checker icon Accessibility Checker in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC

Acrobat has a built in Accessibility Checker that will point out any accessibility errors a document has. This must first be turned on and is not visible in the default settings of Adobe Acrobat.

How to Access the Accessibility Tool

  1. Click the Wrench and Plus sign icon on the far right.
  2. Scroll down to the “Protect & Standardize” in the "More Tools" section.
  3. Add the “Accessibility” option the list of shortcuts.

How to Use the Accessibility Checker

Tagging Content

Once OCR scanned, the next step is to tag the document. Tagging documents will identify different areas of the content such as the difference between a heading, text, and image on the document's page.

Acrobat does not check the reading order and requires manual tagging.Tagged PDFs allow users to navigate through a document seamlessly; untagged PDFs make it difficult for assistive technology users to recognize page content.
  • Video: How to check Headings in Adobe Acrobat DC

    If your PDF originated in Word, it would be much easier to add headings in the Word document before converting to a PDF. If the PDF did not originate from Word, this video will show you how to edit headings in Adobe Acrobat DC.

  • Video: How to Change the Reading Order of a PDF

    The reading order of the contents in a PDF is not reviewed by the Acessibility Checker and must be set manually. This video shows how to edit the reading order of a PDF.

Images and Alt Text

Alternative text, or “alt text” describes the content of images, graphs and charts for Screen readers and Braille devices. The descriptions should be 1 or 2 meaningful sentences that best describe the image to someone who cannot see it. Alt text can be added to all images using the Accessibility tool.

  1. Click Set Alternate Text
  2. A text box will appear for images that are missing descriptions. Type in a concise yet descriptive explaination of the image. 
  3. If an image is for decorative purposes only and does not require an alt text, simply check the Mark as Decorative box


Table headings are also required for all tables in a PDF. To add headings to a table in Adobe use the Reading Order Tool. If the PDF document was created in Word it is recommended to add headings to the table in Word before converting to PDF. To learn how to add a heading to a table in Word please visit our Creating Accessible Word Documents guide.

Color Contrast

Color contrast is another accessibility check that has to be done manually. Having insufficient color contrast in a PDF means that it contains text that may not be legible. This mainly includes have light colored text on a light-colored background or vice versa. Insufficient color contrast also applies to having a lot text that is green or red because color blindness is a common visual disability.

To edit the color of text with insufficient contrast, use the Edit tool, highlight the text, and change it’s color to something with better contrast.

Looking for a deeper dive on PDF accessibility or something not covered above? 
Check out Microsoft's PDF Accessibility training series