2003 Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2003 Table of Contents 


Terry Thompson
Box 355670
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195
Voice: 206-221-4168
TTY: 206-685-3648
Email: tft@u.washington.edu

Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format developed by Adobe Systems. PDF makes it possible to send documents with original formatting intact. PDF files are created by scanning an original print document or by using a variety of popular software applications. In order to read PDF files, the user must have Adobe Acrobat Reader, a free application distributed by Adobe Systems. PDF is widely used in both K-12 and post-secondary education as a convenient method of making documents available across platforms on the web.

The growing popularity of PDF has created concerns about accessibility, particularly for users of screen readers. With the release of Acrobat 5.0, Adobe has made significant steps toward making its popular Portable Document Format (PDF) accessible to persons with disabilities.

For example, PDF now can communicate more effectively with screen readers, and can reflow its text for a better fit within a magnified screen or portable computing device. However, barriers still exist. Most notably, of the three types of PDF documents--unstructured, structured, and tagged--only tagged PDF files are optimized for accessibility. Tagged PDF provides information to the user agent (e.g., screen reader) regarding the document's reading order. It also includes tags that allow the document to reflow properly, and translates fonts into Unicode (a widely-supported text format standard) to eliminate problems that result from non-supported fonts and ligatures. Unfortunately, few authors are currently creating tagged PDF files.

Adobe has developed excellent training resources, including the free documents How To Create Accessible Adobe(r) PDF Files [1] and Advanced Techniques for Creating Accessible Adobe(r) PDF Files [2]. However, these documents are 32 and 42 pages respectively, and contain considerable technical detail. In educational institutions, non-technical people frequently create PDF documents by simply scanning and saving print copies, or by exporting from popular word processing software applications. Given the ease with which PDF documents can be created, few authors are inclined to take the time to study the available resources, and to learn the techniques for creating accessible tagged PDF.

The state of PDF accessibility is similar to the state of HTML accessibility in the early days of the graphic Web: It is possible to create an accessible document, but only if authors understand how. There is still much work to be done in educating Web authors about designing accessible Web content. However, the state of Web accessibility is arguably much better than it was a few years ago. A similar effort must now be taken to educate PDF authors on how to create accessible PDF files.

The current presentation is a model presentation on the practical details of creating accessible PDF files. Audience members will learn the steps, but will additionally learn how to present the steps, so they can participate in the process of educating authors and designers, including:


[1] Adobe Systems Incorporated. How To Create Accessible Adobe(r) PDF Files. [Online]. Available: http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/pdfs/accessbooklet.pdf

[2] Adobe Systems Incorporated. Advanced Techniques for Creating Accessible Adobe(r) PDF Files. [Online]. Available: http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/pdfs/CreateAccessibleAdvanced.pdf

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Return to 2003 Table of Contents 
Return to Table of Proceedings

Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.