PDF files are popular because they give the author exact control over the look and feel of a document, regardless of the platform on which the end user is viewing the content. Also there are numerous PDF creation tools that integrate with almost any application.
However, PDF documents are very difficult to make accessible. Only a few applications will make a PDF accessible with no additional work. Making a PDF file accessible usually involves using tools in Adobe Acrobat Professional to add accessibility information. The tools are cumbersome and clunky and usually require a significant amount of effort to use. Additionally, if you invest all of the work in making a PDF file accessible, if you later need to go back to your original source document to make changes and create a new PDF file, all of your previous accessibility retrofitting will be lost.
Making your first PDF document accessible is kind of fun because you learn all kinds of new skills and tools. The second PDF you have to make accessible is a real pain.
Some applications that do offer some native accessibility support for creating PDFs without additional work in Adobe Acrobat are
- Microsoft Word, but only under limited circumstances. The document needs to be text-only, you need to use Word’s headings, and it has to be authored from a Windows computer.
- Adobe InDesign, but careful planning from the very beginning must be made in order to ensure the PDF is accessible.
While PDF files are viewable on a large range of products, they also bring up the issue of is it better to provide a file the user has to download or should it all be available online. If the page can be rendered as HTML, it doesn’t require a download and it viewable on an even wider range of products.
When possible, PDF files should be avoided because of the lack of support in easily creating and maintaining accessible documents. If you need to use a PDF, be sure to plan thoroughly to ensure that your document can be made as accessible as possible.
Here is a demonstration of how a screen reader experiences an untagged PDF.