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How to create PDFs that are accessible to most users.

Portable Document Format

The PDF, or Portable Document Format, was designed to allow people to share documents that look the same whatever operating system they are viewed on.

However, this format presents challenges for some disabled people, because PDFs are often hard to navigate or incompatible with screen reading software and even when formatted correctly can limit the ability of end users to customise the fonts and colours.

We would recommend that people use HTML formats instead of PDF because of these issues. The UK Government has also recommended that people use HTML instead

UK Government guidance on accessible documents 

If you have to use a PDF then build accessibility into an initial Word document, and optimise the accessibility of the PDF by using Acrobat Professional.

If you need to create a PDF in Microsoft Office, then advise users to open the document in Adobe Reader, rather than in the browser, to ensure greater accessibility and compatibility with assistive technology.

- Zoomtext users need to open Zoomtext before they open the PDF.

- Read and Write users should save the PDF and use the PDF reader function.

Prepare the document in Microsoft Word

It is easier to make a document accessible if you first write it in Word, with accessibility in mind.

Simple text layout: Keep text layout as simple as possible, for example, avoid using text boxes. Complex layouts make it harder for Acrobat to infer the correct reading order during conversion to PDF, which may reduce the accuracy of screen reading software.

Headings: Use paragraph and heading styles, such as ‘Heading 1’, to define the document’s structural elements, instead of simply changing the font size by hand. Acrobat will use Word styles to establish the document structure and generate bookmarks for easy navigation.

Lists: Use the bullets and numbering tool to create lists; do not use the TAB key to format a list or create a table.

Alternative text: Add text descriptions (‘alternative text’) to graphics that have meaningful content.

It is also useful to keep a copy of the document in Word format so that it can be easily converted to alternative formats if required.

Document tagline

Don't forget to include the tagline that tells the reader how to get a copy of the document in another format.

Create a PDF from a Word document

If you have Adobe Acrobat Professional installed, and have macros enabled in Word, there are three ways to convert the document to PDF:

  1. use the Adobe PDFMaker buttons on the toolbar
  2. navigate to the Adobe PDFMaker command through the Adobe PDF menu
  3. print the document to Adobe PDF

Note that free converters such as CutePDF may not be suitable for producing accessible PDFs. This is because they do not necessarily preserve important information such as document structure, alternative text, and reading order.

Optimise accessibility in Adobe Acrobat Professional

All PDF documents should follow the same general formatting and style guidance for accessibility that applies to Word documents.

There are several tools within Acrobat to check and optimise the accessibility of PDFs:

  • The Accessibility Checker identifies and corrects problems such as: unspecified document language, incorrect reading order, and images without alternative text. Find the Checker under 'Advanced > Accessibility > Full Check'.
  • Improve the accuracy of screen reading software by tagging headings and any other important structural items that the Checker shows to be untagged. Check your changes by using Adobe Reader’s ‘Read Out Loud’ feature to listen to the document (under 'View > Read Out Loud').
  • Enhance navigation by inserting or amending bookmarks where appropriate.
  • Use 128-bit encryption to make your document secure while maintaining accessibility (set this under 'Advanced > Security > Encrypt' with Password: Acrobat). Otherwise PDF security settings, which let the author control whether text can be edited and printed, may prevent screen reading software from working with the document.

Further guidance

Webaim has helpful guidance on producing accessible PDFs.

Accessible PDF guide from Webaim

Adobe also has several guides guide to producing accessible PDFs in Acrobat.

Adobe guidance on accessible PDF's

Adobe’s aAcessibility Resource Centre



For further assistance, please:


For further assistance, please contact Viki Galt, the Head of Disability Information.

Viki Galt

Head of Disability Information

  • Information Services

Contact details



Argyle House
Floor F West
3 Lady Lawson Street

Post Code

BSL users can contact me via Contact Scotland BSL, the on-line British Sign Language interpreting service. Find out more on the Contact Scotland BSL website.

Request an alternative format

To request this document in an alternative format, such as large print or on coloured paper, please contact Viki Galt, the Head of Disability Information on the contact details provided above.