How To Handle PDF Documents

 Ask yourself: Must this content be in the PDF format?

The answer is almost always, "No." PDFs are meant to be printed, not viewed and used online. There are very few instances where a PDF document is required, namely when the document is regulatory and the digital version must replicate the paper version.

People who don't rely on screen readers or who forget that many people use mobile devices are often fond of PDFs because they provide a fixed, print-like design and are slightly more difficult to edit than other formats. But they usually provide a poor experience for everyone else:

  • If the visual layout has not been annotated with structure tags, screen reader users often hear fragments of columns and tables read out of order, and cannot locate topic headings and bookmarks.
  • If the field labels, reading order and tab order have not been manually configured on PDF forms, keyboard and screen reader users often find them difficult or impossible to fill out.
  • Mobile and screen magnifier users must zoom in and then repeatedly scroll horizontally and diagonally in a Z pattern to read long lines or follow columns.




Zoom out and Squint?

text on phone is too small to read

Zoom In and Z-scroll?

Only parts of lines fit on screen

Alternatives to PDFs

Remediating PDFs to be compatible with assistive devices is difficult, time-consuming and often expensive. There are three ways to avoid this expense.

In descending order of preference:

  1. Delete the PDF: convert the content into Web pages or editable documents.
  2. Only provide the PDF as the "printable" download to a Web page or editable document.
  3. Provide a Web page or editable document as an "accessible" alternative to the PDF. Note that the content of accessible version must be truly equivalent to satisfy ADA requirements, including reproductions or text equivalents for images, charts and graphs. For complex documents, this may cost more than remediating the PDF.

If you must provide the content exclusively as a PDF...

  1. Follow the content accessibility checklist when creating the document.
  2. Send the document to one of the University's preferred document remediation vendors to be professionally tagged for screen readers: