Creating Accessible PDFs for ADA Compliance: A Comprehensive Guide

Ensure your PDF documents are ADA-compliant and accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. Learn the best practices for creating accessible PDFs, understand the importance of PDF accessibility, and discover the tools and techniques necessary to achieve ADA compliance.


PDF accessibility is a crucial aspect of digital content creation, ensuring equal access for all individuals, including those with disabilities. In today’s digital landscape, where information is predominantly shared and consumed online, it is essential to recognize the significance of PDF accessibility in promoting inclusivity and removing barriers to information. By adhering to accessibility standards, particularly the requirements outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), organizations can ensure that their PDF documents are accessible to individuals with visual impairments, cognitive disabilities, or other limitations. This commitment to accessibility goes beyond legal obligations; it reflects an ethical responsibility to provide equal opportunities for everyone to access and engage with digital content. Moreover, creating accessible PDFs not only ensures compliance but also expands the potential audience reach, allowing organizations to connect with a broader user base and demonstrate their commitment to inclusivity.

Compliance with ADA regulations regarding PDF accessibility is a legal requirement that organizations must adhere to in order to avoid potential legal liabilities. The ADA mandates that electronic and information technology, including PDF documents, be accessible to individuals with disabilities. By creating accessible PDFs, organizations demonstrate their commitment to providing equal access to information and ensure they are not excluding individuals based on their disabilities. Failure to make PDF documents accessible can result in legal consequences, including lawsuits and financial penalties. Beyond the legal considerations, organizations have a moral obligation to ensure their digital content is inclusive and usable by all. Accessible PDFs enable individuals with disabilities to independently access, navigate, and understand the content, fostering a more inclusive and equitable digital environment. By embracing PDF accessibility, organizations can not only meet legal requirements but also enhance their reputation, reach a wider audience, and foster a more inclusive society.

What is ADA Compliance?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a comprehensive civil rights law enacted in 1990 that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various areas, including employment, public accommodations, and access to goods and services. Under Title II of the ADA, which pertains to state and local government services, and Title III, which covers public accommodations and commercial facilities, electronic and information technology (EIT) must be made accessible to individuals with disabilities. This includes ensuring that PDF documents, as a form of EIT, are accessible to users with disabilities.

To achieve ADA compliance for PDF documents, organizations must conform to the accessibility standards set forth by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA. WCAG is an internationally recognized set of guidelines developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to promote web accessibility. The Level AA conformance level of WCAG 2.1 provides a comprehensive set of criteria and success criteria that address various aspects of accessibility, including perceivability, operability, understandability, and robustness. By conforming to WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards, organizations ensure that their PDF documents can be accessed and understood by individuals with disabilities, including those with visual impairments, hearing impairments, cognitive disabilities, and motor impairments.

ADA compliance for PDF documents involves implementing specific accessibility features and practices to make the content perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for individuals with disabilities. Some key considerations include providing alternative text descriptions for images, ensuring proper color contrast, structuring documents using headings and semantic elements, making forms accessible, and ensuring that documents are navigable using assistive technologies. Additionally, organizations should ensure that the reading order of content is logical and sequential and that interactive elements, such as links and buttons, are labeled appropriately. By adhering to ADA compliance requirements and conforming to WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards, organizations can ensure that their PDF documents are accessible and inclusive, enabling individuals with disabilities to access information and participate fully in the digital realm. 

Why Should PDFs be ADA-Compliant?

PDFs should be ADA-compliant to fulfill legal obligations imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and requires that electronic and information technology (EIT) be accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. PDF documents are considered a form of EIT and must adhere to accessibility standards outlined by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA. Failure to make PDFs accessible can result in legal consequences, such as lawsuits, fines, and damage to an organization’s reputation. By ensuring PDF accessibility, organizations demonstrate their commitment to inclusivity and comply with the legal requirements of the ADA.

Beyond legal obligations, creating ADA-compliant PDFs is an ethical consideration that promotes equal access to information for individuals with disabilities. Inaccessible PDFs can create barriers that prevent individuals with visual impairments, hearing impairments, cognitive disabilities, or motor impairments from accessing and understanding the content. By making PDFs ADA-compliant, organizations ensure that individuals with disabilities have the same opportunities to access information, participate in activities, and engage with digital content. It fosters inclusivity, diversity, and equal treatment for all users, aligning with the principles of social responsibility and fairness.

Moreover, making PDFs ADA-compliant expands the audience reach and benefits organizations in various ways. Accessible PDFs attract a broader range of users, including individuals with disabilities who rely on assistive technologies like screen readers, screen magnifiers, or alternative input devices. By accommodating diverse user needs, organizations tap into an untapped market and increase their potential customer base. Additionally, ADA-compliant PDFs enhance the user experience for all users, not just those with disabilities. Accessible features such as well-structured content, clear navigation, and text alternatives for images improve overall usability and readability. By prioritizing accessibility, organizations enhance their reputation, improve user satisfaction, and demonstrate their commitment to inclusivity and diversity in the digital landscape.

What Makes a PDF ADA Compliant?

A PDF becomes ADA-compliant when it incorporates specific features that enhance accessibility for individuals with disabilities. One crucial aspect of ADA compliance is the use of tagged PDF files. Tags provide a hidden, structured representation of the content within the PDF, allowing screen readers to interpret and convey the information accurately to users with visual impairments. Tags ensure that the content is presented in a logical and meaningful manner, enabling proper navigation and comprehension of the document.

In addition to tagged PDF files, several other elements contribute to the ADA compliance of a PDF. First, the presence of searchable text is essential. The searchable text enables individuals with visual impairments to use assistive technologies to navigate and search for specific information within the document. Alt text should be provided for images to describe their content and context to users who cannot see them. This enables individuals with visual impairments to understand the visual elements of the PDF.

Other important considerations for ADA-compliant PDFs include the use of bookmarks, logical reading order, and proper table formatting. Bookmarks allow users to navigate through the document more efficiently by providing an organized structure and quick access to specific sections or headings. Logical reading order ensures that the content flows in a natural sequence, making it easier for screen readers to interpret and present the information coherently. When PDFs contain tables, it is crucial to structure them correctly, ensuring that rows do not split across pages and that the reading order follows a logical left-to-right progression. These features collectively contribute to creating an accessible PDF that can be effectively consumed by individuals with disabilities.

How to Create an Accessible PDF for ADA Compliance

Creating an accessible PDF for ADA compliance doesn’t have to be complicated. By following some practical tips and best practices, you can ensure that your PDF documents are accessible to individuals with disabilities. Here’s a simple guide to help you create an accessible PDF:

Start with an accessible source document: It’s easier to create an accessible PDF if your source document is already structured correctly. Use proper heading styles, lists, and other formatting options to organize your content. This will make it easier to create an accessible PDF later.

Tag your PDF: Tags provide a hidden, structured representation of the content, making it accessible to assistive technologies like screen readers. Use the tagging feature in your PDF creation software to add tags to headings, paragraphs, lists, and other elements.

Structure your content: Properly structure your content using headings, subheadings, and paragraphs. Use heading styles (such as Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.) to create a logical hierarchy. This helps users navigate through the document more efficiently.

Add alternative text to images: Images play an important role in conveying information. Include descriptive alternative text (alt text) for images so that individuals who cannot see them can understand their content. Alt text should be concise, descriptive, and provide relevant information.

Use meaningful link text: When adding links to your PDF, make sure the link text is descriptive and provides context about the destination. Avoid using generic phrases like “click here” and instead use meaningful text that indicates where the link will lead.

Export to an accessible PDF format: After tagging and structuring your document, export it to an accessible PDF format. Many PDF creation software tools provide options to export as an accessible PDF. Make sure to select the appropriate settings to preserve the accessibility features you’ve added.

Test for accessibility: Finally, test your PDF for accessibility. Use accessibility checkers and assistive technologies, such as screen readers, to evaluate the accessibility of your document. This will help you identify any issues that need to be addressed.

By following these steps, you can create accessible PDF documents that comply with ADA standards. Remember, providing equal access to information is not only a legal requirement but also an ethical responsibility. Creating accessible PDFs ensures that individuals with disabilities can access and benefit from your content.

Tools to Create an Accessible PDF

When it comes to creating accessible PDFs, there are several tools available that can assist you in the process. Here are some commonly used tools with their pros and cons:

Adobe Acrobat Pro DC:

Pros: Adobe Acrobat Pro DC is a robust and widely recognized tool for creating accessible PDFs. It offers a range of accessibility features, such as tag editing, alt text management, and built-in accessibility checkers.

Cons: The software can be expensive, especially for individual users or small organizations. It also has a steeper learning curve for those who are new to PDF accessibility.

CommonLook PDF:

Pros: CommonLook PDF is specifically designed for PDF accessibility and provides comprehensive tools for creating accessible documents. It offers features like automated tagging, accessibility reporting, and template-based workflows.

Cons: CommonLook PDF is a specialized tool primarily used by accessibility professionals or larger organizations. It may require additional training to utilize its full potential effectively.


Pros: axesPDF is a user-friendly tool that simplifies the process of creating accessible PDFs. It provides features such as automated tagging, document structure analysis, and accessibility validation. It offers a range of pricing options, including affordable plans for individual users.

Cons: axesPDF may not have as many advanced features as some other tools. However, it is a suitable choice for users seeking a more accessible and cost-effective solution.

These are just a few examples of tools available for creating accessible PDFs. Before choosing a tool, consider your specific requirements, budget, and level of expertise. It’s also a good idea to explore trial versions or demos to determine which tool aligns best with your needs. Remember, regardless of the tool you choose, it’s essential to follow best practices and guidelines for PDF accessibility to ensure compliance with ADA standards.

How to Check if a PDF is ADA Compliant

Ensuring that your PDF documents are ADA-compliant is crucial for providing equal access to information. 

Use Adobe Acrobat Pro DC:

  • Open the PDF document in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC.
  • Go to the “Tools” panel and select the “Accessibility” tool.
  • Click on the “Full Check” option to run the accessibility check.
  • Adobe Acrobat will scan the document and generate a report highlighting any accessibility issues found.
  • Review the report and address the identified issues to make the PDF ADA-compliant.
  • Testing with Screen Readers:

In addition to using accessibility tools, it’s recommended to test the PDF with screen readers to ensure optimal accessibility.

  • Install a screen reader software, such as NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) or JAWS (Job Access With Speech).
  • Open the PDF document and navigate through its content using the screen reader.
  • Pay attention to how the screen reader interprets and presents the information.
  • Ensure that all text, headings, links, and other elements are correctly read aloud by the screen reader.

Additional Resources:

Apart from Adobe Acrobat Pro DC and screen readers, there are other resources available for evaluating PDF accessibility.

  • Online accessibility checkers like PAC (PDF Accessibility Checker) and PDF Accessibility Checker (PAC 3) can help identify accessibility issues.
  • The Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE) can be used to evaluate the accessibility of PDFs when viewed in a web browser.
  • Collaborate with accessibility experts or consultants who can provide thorough accessibility audits and guidance for improving PDF accessibility.

Ongoing Maintenance:

Accessibility is an ongoing process, and it’s important to regularly review and update your PDF documents to maintain ADA compliance.

As technologies evolve and accessibility standards are updated, continue to stay informed and make necessary adjustments to ensure ongoing accessibility.

By following these steps and using the recommended tools and resources, you can effectively check and evaluate the accessibility of your PDF documents, ensuring they meet ADA compliance requirements. Remember, accessibility is about making information inclusive and available to all users, regardless of their abilities.

Common PDF Compliance Errors and their Solution: 

Color Contrast Issues: One common accessibility error in PDF documents is inadequate color contrast between text and background elements. Low contrast can make it difficult for individuals with visual impairments or color blindness to read and understand the content. To address this issue, ensure that the text has sufficient contrast with its background. Use color contrast checking tools or accessibility checkers like the built-in tool in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC to verify and adjust the contrast levels. Aim for a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for regular text and 3:1 for larger text or headings.

Image-Only PDFs: Another common mistake is creating PDF documents that consist solely of images without any textual content. Image-only PDFs pose significant accessibility challenges for individuals who use screen readers or rely on assistive technologies. To avoid this error, provide text alternatives for images by adding descriptive alt text or captions. If the PDF is a scanned document, consider using optical character recognition (OCR) tools to convert the text within the images into searchable and selectable text. By including actual text content, you ensure that the document is accessible to a wider range of users.

Undefined Language: Failure to define the language of a PDF document can hinder its accessibility. Screen readers and other assistive technologies rely on language information to provide accurate pronunciation and reading. To address this error, make sure to specify the document’s language in the document properties or settings. This ensures that assistive technologies can interpret and present the content appropriately. It’s also good practice to use the correct language tags for headings, lists, and other structural elements within the document.

5 examples of common PDF compliance errors:

Missing or Inadequate Alt Text: Images without alt text prevent individuals who rely on screen readers from understanding the visual content. Always include descriptive alt text that conveys the purpose and meaning of the image.

Improperly Tagged Headings: Incorrect or missing heading tags can result in a disorganized reading experience for users who navigate the document using screen readers. Ensure that headings are properly structured with the appropriate hierarchical tags (H1, H2, etc.) to maintain a logical reading order.

Inaccessible Forms: Forms without proper labels, instructions, or accessible form fields can pose significant challenges for individuals with disabilities. Ensure that all form elements are labeled correctly and that the form can be completed and submitted using only the keyboard.

Lack of Bookmarks and Navigation: Without bookmarks, users may have difficulty navigating through lengthy PDF documents. Provide bookmarks that allow users to jump directly to specific sections or pages within the document, enhancing overall accessibility and user experience.

Unstructured Tables: Tables that are not properly formatted or lack logical reading order can be inaccessible to individuals using screen readers. Ensure that tables have appropriate header cells, row and column labels, and a clear structure that can be understood without relying on visual cues.

By avoiding these common errors and implementing best practices for PDF accessibility, you can create documents that are more inclusive and accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Addressing Accessibility Issues:

Once you have identified accessibility issues through the accessibility check and screen reader testing, it’s essential to address them.

  • Common accessibility issues include missing alt text for images, improper heading structure, inaccessible form fields, and inconsistent reading order.
  • Use the accessibility features provided by your PDF editing tool, such as Adobe Acrobat Pro DC, to add alt text, adjust heading levels, and ensure proper reading order.
  • Ensure that form fields are properly labeled and interactive elements like links and buttons are accessible to screen readers.
  • Testing across Different Devices and Platforms:
  • To ensure broader accessibility, test your ADA-compliant PDFs across different devices, operating systems, and PDF viewers.
  • PDF rendering can vary across platforms, so it’s important to ensure that your document remains accessible regardless of the user’s device or software.
  • Test your PDF on different screen sizes, including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones, to ensure optimal readability and functionality.


In conclusion, creating accessible PDFs for ADA compliance is crucial for ensuring equal access to information for all users, including individuals with disabilities. Throughout this comprehensive guide, we have explored the key elements of PDF accessibility, including the importance of tags, searchable text, alt text for images, logical reading order, bookmarks, and proper table formatting. By adhering to the WCAG 2.1 Level AA standards and following best practices, organizations can avoid common compliance errors and enhance the usability of their PDF documents.

The significance of PDF accessibility extends beyond legal obligations. It is an ethical responsibility to provide equal access to information and services for individuals with disabilities. By prioritizing accessibility, organizations not only comply with ADA requirements but also foster inclusivity and diversity. Accessible PDFs allow a broader audience to access and engage with digital content, improving user experience and expanding reach.

It is essential for organizations to recognize the benefits of creating accessible PDFs and to implement the necessary tools, techniques, and quality assurance processes to ensure compliance. By embracing PDF accessibility, organizations demonstrate their commitment to inclusivity, enhance user satisfaction, and mitigate the risk of legal liabilities. Let us strive to make accessibility a fundamental consideration in our digital content creation, ensuring that everyone can participate fully and equally in the digital world.

Note: PDF accessibility standards and guidelines may evolve over time, so it’s important to stay updated with the latest recommendations and best practices to ensure ongoing ADA compliance.