If you are interested in general document accessibility regardless of format, including why certain features like headings and alt-text are necessary, please see our article on general ways to make documents more accessible.

Accessibility for PDFs

PDF (Portable Document Format) is commonly used to provide readings and course documents to students because PDFs are less prone to user changes or formatting issues when opened on another computer, and because scanners typically generate PDFs. PDFs are very transportable, but they are not necessarily accessible, especially if they were created by a scanner.

There is a misconception that PDFs that have OCR (optical character recognition) enabled are fully accessible, and that ensuring scans are OCR-enabled is all you need to do. OCR enables a computer to recognize that a document is made of readable text, rather than an image; however, it is only the first step toward accessibility. An OCR-enabled scan is not necessarily an accessible PDF.

To be accessible, in addition to OCR, a PDF must have at a minimum:

  • a structure that is “legible” to a screenreader, indicating what order to read text in (this is referred to as a “tagged” PDF)
    • It is preferable that this tagging structure indicates headings, subheadings, body text, footnotes, etc appropriately so the user can navigate the document. For very short documents, a formal tagging structure might not be necessary
    • If data tables are present, they must be properly tagged so the user receives data in a comprehensible way
  • alternative text description for all non-decorative images and graphs, if images or graphs are present

How Do I Get Accessible PDFs?

Option 1: Find an Accessible Version Online

The first step to providing an accessible PDF is to try to avoid having to make an accessible PDF yourself. Fortunately, many materials you provide may already exist in an accessible format.

First, if you already have a PDF of the material, check whether it is accessible. Attempt to highlight a line in the text. If you are able to do so, OCR is enabled, and you should proceed to test the document using a screen-reading tool to make sure it is accessible. If trying to highlight some text just highlights a whole page, OCR is not enabled and your document is definitely not accessible.

Second, look online.

  • For older works (e.g., materials in the public domain), you may find a free PDF or HTML digital version you can test.
  • For journal articles, search Library databases like JSTOR, EBSCO or others; most recent journal articles that are available as PDFs through databases are accessible. The Library team can help you with this; consider contacting the Reference Desk for assistance.
  • For books you would normally require all students to buy, investigate whether an ebook or audiobook version is available for a comparable price. (Note that you cannot require a student with a disability to spend money on an ebook if the text is provided to other students free of charge, but you can consult with the Library or Office of Accessibility about how to make that resource available to the student.)

If you need assistance at this stage, please contact the Library. If you are unable to find an accessible copy, you will need to make your copy accessible; read on.

Option 2: Make an Accessible PDF

You can use software like Adobe Acrobat Pro to make an inaccessible PDF accessible by, in this order:

  • enabling OCR
  • setting the document language
  • ensuring a tagging structure is in place
  • adding descriptive “alt-text” for images, graphs, etc.

To learn more about these steps in Acrobat Pro (or Acrobat DC) and why they’re important, please consult the Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s article on accessible PDFs. On the Adobe website, you can learn more about Acrobat’s accessibility tools and how to use them. Acrobat Pro is available to Champlain faculty and staff as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud package. Consult ChampSupport’s article on Creative Cloud access for faculty and staff for more information.

Saving Time

Making a PDF accessible can be quick and easy or time-consuming and complicated, depending on the material you are starting with. Good starting material may mean you need to do relatively little work after enabling OCR. Here are some tips to simplify the process before you being to work on PDFs in Acrobat:

  • Make sure your scan is clean: no blur, shadows, bends in the page that distort the text, variations in contrast, writing in the margins, etc.
  • Scan one page at a time, avoiding two-page (open-book-style) scans; this greatly simplifies the process of tagging for reading order
  • If possible, use a scanner that can enable OCR as part of the scanning process
  • Ensure all PDF pages are rotated so the text is right side up

You may need to rescan the document. The time it takes to do so is much less than the time you will spend trying to correct how Acrobat interprets a poor scan! The Library may also be able to assist you with digitizing.

Seek Help!

If you have tried making your PDFs accessible and you run into difficulties, or if you have a massive volume of documents that must be converted, please contact the Office of Accessibility to discuss options for getting assistance.

The Office of Accessibility, the CLT, the Library, and Academic Technology, as well as Faculty Senate, are aware that accommodating students with disabilities can create a significant amount of prep work for faculty. Please know that we empathize, and there are ongoing discussions across the college about this issue. While the CLT cannot provide captioning or document conversion services due to volume and limited person-power, we can certainly assist Champlain faculty and academic staff in mastering these processes for efficiency. 

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