An accessible PDF is a PDF document that can be read and accessed by people with disabilities, primarily for the vision-impaired that may use assistive technology to read the file through text-to-speech or a Braille printout.

An accessible PDF is a PDF document that can be read and accessed by people with disabilities, primarily for the vision-impaired that may use assistive technology to read the file through text-to-speech or a Braille printout. A PDF document is considered accessible only if it meets a set of accessibility guidelines.

In October 2019, the US Supreme Court made a landmark decision. The court denied a petition from Domino’s – a pizza conglomerate – to hear whether their website is required to be accessible to people with disabilities. This ruling is considered a massive win for disability advocates as it sends out a clear message – if your documents and websites are not accessible, then you run the risk of getting sued.

PDF: A Brief Overview

PDF or Portable Document Format is one of the most commonly used formats for documents across the globe. Adobe Systems invented the PDF format in the 1990s. The ability to contain text, links, tables, and graphics in a single, self-contained, and independent file without needing to rely on a hardware or software platform rocked the industry. It is no wonder that PDF quickly became the standard for digital documents.

PDFs continued to advance by including modern features such as encryption, digital signatures, rich media, and annotations. In 2008, it was turned over by Adobe to the International Organization for Standards (ISO) as ISO-32000:1:2008 as an open standard, through a patent license to the ISO. Today PDF continues to be the most dominant document format on the Internet, beating out file formats like ePUB and proprietary formats like Microsoft Office

Whether you run a small company or a giant corporation, you likely deal with a large number of documents as part of your business. Bills, invoices, policy statements, training manuals, and user guides are just some of the documents that benefit from the PDF format.

Why is the PDF format so popular?

The beauty of PDFs is their universality. PDFs can be opened and viewed on any computer, operating system, or software application that supports it. Almost all software tools that generate digital files support the PDF format and even allow users to create PDF versions of their files from within their software apps.

Computer peripherals, including scanners, printing systems, and large copiers, can create PDFs from printed documents or electronic content. So, it is easy and convenient to create PDF content from almost any source.

All of these reasons contribute to making the PDF format a universal standard for digital documents from various types of organizations, businesses, and individuals like government agencies, educational institutions, and corporations.

It’s important to note that a standard PDF document–one that does not meet accessibility guidelines–requires user edits to be accessible. For instance, an individual with a visual impairment may not be able to read the contents of the PDF when using a screen reader or other assistive technology; this is why a PDF document has to be made accessible before those with disabilities can read it.

So, what exactly is the difference between a standard/regular PDF file (referred to as just ‘PDF’ in this article) and an accessible PDF file?

What is the difference between a standard PDF and an accessible PDF?

A PDF document is considered accessible if it can be used/accessed by everyone, including people with disabilities; this includes access by people who are blind, visually, or cognitively impaired or color-blind.

If you want to quickly check whether a given PDF is accessible or not, check out What’s the quickest way to check whether a PDF is accessible?

An accessible PDF makes it easier for people with disabilities to access PDF documents with the aid of assistive technology software and devices, like screen magnifiers, screen readers, speech-recognition software, text-to-speech software, alternative input devices, and refreshable Braille displays.

For more detailed information on accessible PDFs. check out What is an Accessible PDF exactly? What does it look like?

Almost any computerized system can create PDFs. The format’s inherent appeal is that it supports virtually any electronic content. Unfortunately, a standard PDF not built with accessibility in mind is problematic.

The individual components of a standard PDF can be selected and edited unless the PDF originated from a scan. Adobe Acrobat interprets the pages in scanned PDFs as images that cannot be altered or manipulated. PDF content that is not selectable cannot be accessible.

PDF content must go through OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to convert an image or scan into a file with separate text, images, lists, and tables–a process that can be lengthy and painful.

Screen readers like JAWS or NVDA provide their visually impaired users with text-to-speech and Braille output from accessible PDF files. Additionally, visually impaired computer users can have their computer screens and files read to them, though quality may vary.

readers are incompatible with standard PDF documents because there is no way for the tools to read image files or text that is not in the correct reading order.