Making PDF Files Accessible

PDF (portable document format) files are a common type of file that instructor’s share with their students. Unlike working with Word or PowerPoint files where you compose and edit content directly in the software, the content in PDF files is usually created elsewhere and gets converted to a PDF file later so that it is easier to share.

There are three main types of PDF files:

  • Scanned PDF  – These were originally physical paper/books and were converted to PDF files using a scanner.
  • Document PDF – These were originally created in software like Word or PowerPoint and were converted to PDF files to protect the formatting.
  • Webpage PDF – This content was originally posted on a webpage and was converted to PDF to make it more shareable.

It can be quite difficult to make PDF files accessible. Here are some tips for simplifying the process:

  1. Whenever possible, avoid converting things to PDF. If the original document, webpage, or article is already accessible digitally, why go through the extra work to make a PDF version accessible as well? Share the original version with students instead.
  2. Link to articles in Library databases as opposed to downloading and sharing the PDF version.
  3. Avoid scanning paper/book pages. Scanned PDF files will never be fully accessible. Make every effort to locate and share the original version of electronic documents.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the features in Adobe Acrobat that can help make your PDF files accessible.
Note: Adobe Acrobat (part of Adobe Creative Cloud) is available for faculty and staff to download here.

Making Scanned PDF Files Accessible

You have probably come across scanned PDF files that are misaligned, grainy, and difficult to read. These PDF files are even more difficult for learners using assistive technology to read and this often causes them to lose out on important course information. Adobe Acrobat can sometimes help make scanned PDF files better.

Printable Tutorial: Enhancing Scanned PDF Accessibility

If a scanned PDF file is not salvageable, here are some other options:

  • Link to articles in Library databases as opposed to downloading and sharing them as PDF files. Linking to an article in a Library database places the responsibility of making content accessible on the provider, not the faculty.
  • Scanned PDF files acquired by your library liaison through Interlibrary Loan are for research purposes only. Sharing these files with students is a violation of fair use. We encourage you to contact your library liaison for assistance finding shareable alternatives.
  • Whenever possible, locate and share the original electronic version of a file or use Google to search for a more accessible version of the same information.

Making Document PDF Files Accessible

The first step toward making these PDF files accessible is to make the Word or PowerPoint files you are converting accessible. When the original file is accessible, it is much easier to make the PDF version accessible. Also, consider whether the file really needs to be converted to PDF. If you have already made your PowerPoint/Word file accessible, why make more work? Just share that original file.

If you do choose to convert your PowerPoint/Word file to PDF, here is the proper way to convert them:

Printable Tutorial: Saving Office Files as a PDF

If you are not able to access the original Word/PowerPoint file, you can use the Adobe Acrobat Accessibility Checker to make the PDF file more accessible.

Printable Tutorial: Adobe Acrobat Accessibility Checker

Making Webpage PDF Files Accessible

Once again, the easiest way to make this type of PDF file accessible is to not convert it to PDF. If the information you are converting to PDF is already openly available online, share a link to the page where it lives. If you are sure that the information will be taken offline or that student’s will not be able to access it, there are ways to make that PDF file readable and accessible.

First, use the “Simplify Page” printing option in Mozilla Firefox to ‘print’ your web pages as simplified PDF files.
Note: This is option is not available for all webpages. It works best on websites that display information in linear columns (news sites, articles, blogs, etc.)

Printable Tutorial: Saving Webpages as a PDF File

Once your PDF file has been saved to your computer, refer to the Adobe Acrobat Accessibility Checker tutorial above to resolve any remaining accessibility issues.