Everyone loves the PDF file format.  It’s just what it says, it’s a Portable Document File.  It can be created from and will open on nearly any device or platform, retains its formatting, and is secure.  It can contain text, images, lists, tables, and diagrams.  It’s an extremely useful document file format.  Unless that is,  you are a person who uses assistive technology to read your digital documents.  Then a PDF is often the bane of your existence. Especially if someone used “Print to PDF.”

How a PDF file is read by assistive technology

A PDF file must contain a digital tag structure in order to interact with assistive technology such as a screen reader or a connected Braille display. While a sighted person can easily identify headings, images, lists, and tables on a page, without proper digital tags, the screen reader cannot provide this information in a comprehensible way to someone who cannot see the page.

Lists and tables read as run-on sentences- the data they contain simply provide one item after another with no explanation of their relationship.  Images read as “image” with no description of what they represent.  Headings blend in with the text. Assistive technology users have to read the ENTIRE document in order to find what they need when headings are left untagged.

Many document formats are innately accessible

Frustrated blind person at a laptop because someone used Print to PDF

Microsoft Word and Google Docs can produce reasonably accessible documents without a lot of extra work. But not all document formats are as versatile for publishing on websites or distributing electronically in a secure way as PDF files are. So, many organizations convert their documents into PDF format. The mistakes come with using “Print to PDF” and failing to check the accessibility of your converted documents.

Not all accessibility tags are portable

But there is a catch.  Even documents that began as accessible will often become inaccessible when converted to PDF format. Not all digital tags are preserved when “saving as PDF,” and none are if you choose the “Print to PDF” option.  Your document must be checked to ensure that the necessary digital tags are there for assistive technology users once a document has been converted into PDF format.  If they are not, they must be added.  This is called PDF remediation.

“Print to PDF” is always inaccessible

“Print to PDF” erases most digital tagging and produces a document that appears entirely blank to assistive technology.  It essentially converts your document into a graphic – it’s as if you took a photo of your document, so it has no tags of any kind.

“Save as PDF” will still need some attention

“Save as PDF” will often preserve many digital tags such as headings, alt text for images, and links.  But reading order is often a big problem that must be remediated.  Reading order is what it says: The order in which the content is read by assistive technology.  For most documents, it should proceed from the top and move down the page item by item.

If there are two columns, it should read all of one column top to bottom and then read the next column from top to bottom.  Errors in reading order can occur when a document is “saved to PDF”, even an accessible document.  This format reorders your content based on when it was added to the document, instead of reading the content in the order intended.  So for example, if you added in a paragraph, or moved a couple around, the reading order will likely be incorrect. This is a very common failure in creating PDFs.

woman happily working at a laptop for PDF Remediation not Print to PDF

Fixing PDFs doesn’t have to be difficult

PDF remediation involves using specialized software to label the various elements of the document. Not all PDF remediation software is created equally.  Some tools are easier than others.  To learn more about choosing a tool that takes the hard work out of PDF Remediation, have a look at these articles.

What is PDF Remediation?

3 Myths about PDF Accessibility

Equidox PDF Academy

Want to see Equidox PDF remediation software in action? Contact us for a free demonstration.


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