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Best practice: Creating inclusive PDF documents

The easiest way to create an inclusive PDF document is to create it in Word or PowerPoint first. If you follow the guidance on the relevant best practice pages before converting your document to a PDF, the converted document will retain the original accessibility features.

NB: There are some accessibility features (such as choosing sufficient contrast between foreground and background colours) that cannot be added in a PDF creator; these need to be added in software such as Word or PowerPoint first.

If your document contains mathematical equations, you should not convert it into a PDF. PDF software does not translate or render mathematical equations effectively and the gobbledegook that is produced will be incomprehensible.

When creating your document in Word or PowerPoint please consider the following points:

  1. Keep the document layout as simple as possible and avoid using text boxes. Complex layouts make it difficult for a PDF creator to infer the correct reading order when converting the document to a PDF. This may reduce the accuracy of screen readers.
  2. Specify the language of your PDF as this will enable screen reader users to switch to a more appropriate language if they want to. This is particularly useful for those learners for whom English is not their first language.
  3. Use proper headings (e.g. heading one, heading two etc.). Do not use bold or underlined text as headings and try to be logical with your use of headings. Main section headings should be styled with a larger heading (e.g. heading one). Sub-section headings should be styled with a smaller heading (e.g. heading two). Use a paragraph style for the main body of the text. A PDF creator will use Word (or PowerPoint) styles to establish the document structure and to generate bookmarks for navigation. Additionally, give your PDF document a proper, meaningful title as this will make it easier for learners to find.
  4. Use proper list formatting for numbered or bulleted lists. Do not use the Tab key to format a list or to create a table.
  5. Add alt tag descriptions to images. Although it is quite common to produce PDF documents that contain images of text, this is really poor practice from an accessibility perspective as screen readers struggle to interpret this type of content. Text should be available in text format. If this is not possible then the alt tag for the image of the text should contain exactly the same text as the image.
  6. Keep a copy of the document in Word or PowerPoint format so that it can easily be converted to alternative formats if required.

PDF forms

We recommend using Adobe Acrobat DC to create accessible forms. Many institutions have a licence for this software but it is also available as a free trial from the Adobe website. Forms can be created from scratch or adapted from an existing document. Adobe form tools can be used to create fields such as buttons, check boxes, menus and text boxes.

To make your form accessible you need to include fields where your learners can enter values. When you create a field, type a meaningful description in the Tooltip field in the Properties dialogue box for that field. Screen readers read this text aloud to the user. Interactive PDFs also have a defined tab order which enables screen reader users to use the Tab key to move between form fields. You need to check that the tab order for the elements of your form, work in a logical order, otherwise the form will not make sense to screen reader users.

Accessible forms should:

  • provide information about who you are and why you want the user to complete the form. It is also good practice to explain what will happen to any data learners provide and how you will store their data.
  • give information about how to complete the form. Do not assume that everyone will know what to do. You have designed the form so you will have an intimate knowledge of it. Most learners will not and can interpret forms in ways that you have not considered! Test your forms before making them available to your learners.
  • not be time-limited. If you need to set time limits, you should provide a simple way for learners to ask for more time.

If you need to set security on your form (such as restricting the ability to print, edit or copy it) you need to ensure it does not interfere with a screen reader's ability to read the document.

Any audio controls should be at the discretion of the learner, not dictated by the PDF document and you should not use a zoom feature to focus in on a particular part of the document. You can give instructions that the learner might want to do this at a particular point, but the choice should be theirs.