Making the most of PDFs

Author/Producer Dr Simon Ball - Tech Dis
Published in Summer Newsletter 2008
Date Published 21 July 2008
Pages 4


This is the fourth in a series of articles written for ESCalate, giving practical advice abouut how to improve aspects of practice that benefits all learners


The TechDis Accessibility Essentials Guide on making the most of PDFs has been designed to provide step-by-step information to enable anyone creating or using Portable Document Format (PDF) documents to do so in a more accessible manner.

These hints and tips will benefit those who create PDF documents using scanned materials or word processed documents, or receive a PDF version of publicity materials from a graphic designer.

Accessibility Essentials 4 is available online and in hard copy at no charge (a fee may be charged for bulk orders), and is supplemented by web-based guidance including hints and tips for screen reader users, best practice case studies and a comparison of some free PDF software.

The use of the techniques described here will aid people with a wide range of disabilities, needs and preferences to get more from written content by highlighting the potential benefits of PDF format and enabling documents to be created with these in mind. These techniques will have benefits (and possibly barriers) for different groups of learners and it is important to consider the needs of the specific learners and adapt the materials as necessary.

A few highlights from the document are included here as a flavour of the full document.

Building Accessibility into Existing PDFs

This section looks at techniques for ensuring that existing PDF documents are as accessible as possible (these functions are available in Adobe® Acrobat Professional but may not be available in all software).

  • The Accessibility Check – this section is highlighted in more detail below
  • Adding Tags and Structure to PDFs
  • PDFs and Bookmarks
  • PDFs and Images
  • PDFs and Tables

Running the Accessibility Check

  • Navigate to Advanced > Accessibility > Full check. The dialogue box seen in Figure 1 will appear.
  • Make sure the 'Create Accessibility Report' and 'Include repair hints in the Accessibility Report' boxes are checked.
  • Select the appropriate range to be checked and click 'Start Checking'.
  • This will produce a dialogue box giving a brief overview of any problems found. Clicking 'OK' in this box will produce a full report giving links to any problem areas of the document and instructions for amending these areas.

Figure 1. Accessibility Check Dialogue Box (see attached download)

Typically the Accessibility Check will find at least two problems; that the text lacks a language specification and that there is no reading order. Instructions on how to address these are given in Accessibility Essentials 4.

Adding Tags and Structure to PDFs

If the source document has been properly created using styles and headings these will be carried over when the document is converted to PDF format. However if you do not have access to the source document or it was not well structured, it is possible to clear the existing structure and add the appropriate tags. This can be a lengthy process if you are working with a long document.

Clearing the existing document structure

This may be necessary if the source document was not structured appropriately and an entirely new structure is needed. It is important to note that any existing tags will be erased, leaving a completely unstructured page.

  • Navigate to Advanced > Accessibility > TouchUp Reading Order. The dialogue box seen in Figure 2 will be displayed.
  • Select 'Clear Page Structure'.
  • A dialogue box will prompt you to check whether you want to clear all structure from the document. Click 'Yes'.

Figure 2. Touch Up Reading Order Dialogue Box (see attached download)

Adding structure

Once the existing reading order has been cleared a new structure can be added. To define the new structure:

  • Navigate to Advanced > Accessibility > TouchUp Reading Order.
  • Using the mouse, select the area to be tagged.
  • Click on the appropriate button. For example to make the selected text into a main heading, click the 'Heading 1' button. This will tag the selection as a particular type of content.
  • Reading order is determined by the order in which the content is tagged, i.e. the first tagged item will be the first item in the reading order. Each item is labelled with a number corresponding to the reading order of the document (see Figure 3).
  • Mistakes in the reading order can be rectified by dragging and dropping the numbers to the appropriate place.

Figure 3. Highlighting text and allocating Heading level to set Reading Order (see attached download)

User Personalisation of Adobe® Reader

This section covers techniques that the reader can use to amend the look and feel of a PDF document so that it is best suited to them. Please note that many of these functions are only available in Adobe® Reader; users will not necessarily be able to access the same functions when reading a PDF in a web browser or other PDF reader software.

  • Personalised Font and Background Colours – this section covers how users can change the background and font colours to suit their personal requirements.
  • Enlarging the Text Size – this section covers the use of the zoom function to enlarge the text size of a document.
  • Document Navigation – this section covers using the Bookmark and Pages views to quickly navigate through a document. It also covers the Find and Search functions which allow users to search the current and other documents for particular information.
  • Alternative Views – Adobe® Reader allows users to reflow text, enabling columns to be arranged into continuous text and magnified text to fit into the window without the need for horizontal scrolling, scroll through a document automatically and have specified sections, pages or a whole document read aloud. This section shows users how to make use of these alternative views.

Accessibility Essentials 4

This is the fourth publication in the Accessibility Essentials Series, with other titles covering:

  • Making Electronic Documents More Readable
  • Writing Accessible Electronic Documents with Microsoft®
  • Word Creating Accessible Presentations

For more information or to obtain this or the other documents in the Accessibility Essentials Series see or contact us on

TechDis TechDis supports the education sector in achieving greater accessibility and inclusion by stimulating innovation and providing expert advice and guidance on disability and technology. TechDis is a JISC-funded advisory service. For more information go to