This is the first in a series of posts on ways you can, and cannot, create accessible PDFs from various applications.
Microsoft Publisher is most commonly used as an authoring tool for creating print materials like fliers, handouts, and brochures. A common practice is to also create a PDF version of the brochure to either email to people or post online. So is it possible to create a fully accessible PDF using only Microsoft Publisher? In short, sometimes, but only for simple layouts and it will still take you a fair amount of work. If you just want the moral of the story without all the gory details, avoid using Microsoft Publisher to create PDFs because it is too difficult to do, unless the document has an extremely simple layout and structure. Here are the issues to contend with.
As with most Microsoft products, any image in Publisher can have alternative text added to it. You need to simply select the image and chose “Format Picture” from the context menu. Then in the “Web” tab enter the alternative text.
The problem occurs when you want to mark an image as a decorative image and you just want to make the alternative text an empty string so screen readers will ignore it. The problem is you cannot set the alternative text to an empty string in Publisher. You basically have two choices
- leave the alternative text field blank
- put a single space in the alternative text field
The problem is different screen readers handle these cases differently. If you leave the alternative text blank, JAWS reads each of the images while NVDA ignores them. If you make the alternative text a single space, JAWS ignores the images but NVDA reads each image. VoiceOver ignores all alt text, whether it is empty, a single space, or has real text in it.
In this case there is no best solution for how to add alternative text for decorative images directly from within Publisher. The best solution involves going into Adobe Acrobat and explicitly setting the image as a background object.
This is the most tedious issue to deal with in Publisher. Screen readers will read the objects on the screen in the order they were created. Technically, screen readers read the objects in the order they appear in the stack (z-index). Screen readers will read items furthest back in the stack first and items closest to the front last. Armed with this knowledge you will now need to go through your entire document and systematically select each item individually and choose to “Bring to front”, starting with the first item that should be read first and ending with the last item to be read. The only way to check that you got it right is to open the document in Adobe Acrobat and either use the built-in “Read Out Loud” feature or use a screen reader. Of course, if you missed anything you will have to repeat the previous process almost in its entirety.
Unless your document has a very basic layout this fact alone should deter you from using Publisher to create accessible PDFs.
By default, all text entered in Publisher is rendered as paragraph elements in the PDF. In order to add semantic structure to your document, in Publisher you will need to explicitly use styles like “heading” when you have a heading on the page. Even when you add a “Heading” from the “Page Parts” menu in Publisher it is still rendered as a paragraph element in the PDF, so you must go through and explicitly assign the correct style.
If you use other objects like tables there is no way to make them accessible directly within Publisher. That work will have to be done directly in Adobe Acrobat.
In order to check if you have properly assigned headings to all of the necessary elements you will need to either
- manually click through each element in Publisher to double check which style is assigned to the element.
- open the document in Adobe Acrobat and inspect the reading order and object properties
- use a screen reader to ensure each heading is being rendered as a heading
Exporting the PDF
When exporting a Publisher document as a PDF you MUST choose “Save as” from the file menu and choose the file format of “PDF.” In the “Options” you must then check “Document structure tags for accessibility”. If you simply choose “Save as Adobe PDF” from the file menu it will not create an accessible PDF.
You should probably avoid using Publisher to create accessible PDFs unless your Publisher document has a very simple layout and does not use decorative images. You will end up doing a lot of extra work with a tool set that is not designed to build in and test for accessibility, or you will need to correct errors directly in Adobe Acrobat. If you do make changes directly in Acrobat, if you ever re-export the PDF from Publisher, you will need to repeat all of the manual changes you made in Adobe Acrobat.