Accessible Word & PDF

As in the web environment, navigation and orientation are key tasks a screen reader user must perform in order to read a Microsoft Word or Adobe PDF document. Not only must content be apparent to the screen reader, the user must have some way of getting to the relevant information in the document without reading the document front to back. If you follow a few basic steps when generating your Word document, producing an accessible PDF file—as long as you use the correct plug-ins—is straightforward. The cornerstone of creating an accessible PDF file is to make sure that the originating document is structured properly. We will look at MS Word, as it is the most commonly used word processing package on campus. You can also view information about creating PDFs from the InDesign Accessibility Overview, the Indesign Accessibility Video and the WebAIM article on OpenOffice.

Acrobat Professional or other specialized software is required to repair the accessibility of existing PDF files. Veiw the WebAIM article, “Acrobat X and Accessibility.”

Create structured MS Word documents

The following links will show you how to perform the tasks necessary for creating a structured word document. The objective for each of these tasks is to ensure that when the PDF is created from Word, the accessibility information is transferred to the PDF document.

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Publish the PDF from Word

To publish a PDF from a Word document, you will want to use one of two add-ons. If you have installed Acrobat Pro after installing Microsoft office, you will automatically have access to the PDFMaker add-on. If you do not have Acrobat Pro installed, you can install and use the free Microsoft Office PDF add-in.

Using the Microsoft Office PDF add-in

To convert a Word document to PDF using the Microsoft add-in, click on the Office Button, hover over Save As and select PDF.

screen shot of microsoft pdf add in

Before saving the file to PDF, select Options and make sure that “Document structure tags for accessibility” is checked.

screen shot of microsoft pdf add in

Using the Adobe PDFmaker add-on

Make sure accessibility features are enabled in the Adobe add-on preferences. Click the Create Adobe PDF Preferences button.


In the resultant pop-up window, make sure that the “Fully functional PDF” radio button is checked. The following checkboxes should be checked as well:

  • Add bookmarks to Adobe PDF
  • Add links to Adobe PDF
  • Enable accessiblity and reflow with tagged Adobe PDF

Click the Word tab. Make sure the following checkboxes are checked:

  • Convert cross-references and table of contents to links
  • Convert footnote and endnote links
word settings

Click the Bookmarks tab. Make sure the following checkboxes are checked:

  • Convert Word Headings to Bookmarks
  • convert Word Bookmarks

Click OK to exit the preferences pane and then click on the Create PDF button.


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Checking PDF Accessibility

Adobe Reader performs a perfunctory accessibility check on a PDF document, telling you whether or not it is a tagged PDF, which meansUsing Adobe Reader, select the menu pick: Document > Accessibility Quick Check. A pop-up window will alert you to any accessibility issues with the PDF. You can also use the PDF Accessibility Checker 1.1 (Windows-only) to flag common PDF accessibility errors. A more comprehensive accessibility check will require Adobe Acrobat Pro, CommonLook, or testing with a screen reader. If you need a PDF evaluated, please contact Scott Williams at the Office of Institutional Equity.

View the WebAIM articles on MS Word & PDF Resources.

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Making Accessible PDF forms

First off, if you are planning on distributing a PDF form to your end users, consider instead making the form HTML-based. The National Federation for the Blind (NFB) strongly recommends using web-based forms instead of PDFs to collect information. ITS supports a simple web-to-email CGI script that you can use to submit online forms for nonsensitive data. Using an HTML form, you then need only follow the forms best practices to ensure that your form is accessible.

If, however, you are committed to publishing a PDF-based form, you will want to use Adobe LiveCycle to make your form if it is more complex than the simplest PDF form. LiveCycle comes with a convenient set of tools with which you can produce an accessible PDF. The Paciello Group has put together a nice training video for LiveCycle on the Adobe website. One caveat to using LiveCycle to author a PDF form is that the document must be maintained with LiveCycle, as it uses a different format than Adobe Acrobat Pro.

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