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Guide to document accessibility

Although we recommend avoiding PDFs on your websites whenever possible, there are some cases where PDFs are necessary such as forms or complex design items. If you do need to have PDFs on your website, it’s important to ensure they are accessible, readable and searchable.

This section will focus on building a PDF that meets those standards, starting with the document you create with Word, PowerPoint, Excel or InDesign.

Creating an accessible source document

The first step in creating an accessible PDF is creating an accessible source document. A source document is the file created in Word, Excel, InDesign or any other program before exporting into a PDF.

Creating an accessible source document is much easier than fixing a PDF retroactively. Here are some things to keep in mind when creating or editing a source document. Please note that this list is not meant to be a comprehensive guide. See the additional resources below for more in-depth training opportunities.

Use document styles

The most important (and easiest) thing you can do to create an accessible source document is use proper document styles for headings and lists. Instead of bolding, resizing and/or styling your text using the toolbar in Word, Powerpoint, Excel or InDesign, make use of the built-in styles available in each program for headings, lists, etc. 

If you don’t like the way those styles look, don’t fret! You can customize them to be in line with the UVic and/or your unit’s brand. The important thing is to use them the same way you would when editing your website. The same web best practices for page titles and headings apply to documents as well.

Microsoft Office tutorials (includes Word, Excel, and Powerpoint)

Adobe InDesign tutorial

Add document metadata

Metadata is information stored within a PDF, including the title, language, subject, and keywords. When you’re creating or editing a source document, the metadata fields will often be left blank unless you update them.

Metadata is important because:

  • it provides important information to assistive technology (e.g. screen readers) and users including what language the text is written in and what kind of information the document contains
  • it is stored by search engines such as Google. Having descriptive and accurate metadata will make it easier for users to find your content when searching the web
  • certain parts of the metadata will display when the PDF is opened in a browser or in a PDF reader
    • For example, if the “title” field is left blank, the title of the document will often display as the file name (e.g. dog-breed-guide-v3-final.pdf) instead of something easier to read (e.g. UVic guide to dog breeds)

The most important metadata fields to set for your document are title and language (usually English). Set the author to your unit’s name and add a short description to help with search engine optimization.

Setting up metadata

Set up your metadata in the source document before exporting to PDF, otherwise you’ll have to repeat the process every time you export.

To learn how to set metadata in Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint and other Microsoft Office programs, see Microsoft’s guide on document propertiesFor step-by-step instructions: scroll down to “View and change the standard properties for the current file” and select the relevant program from the dropdown menu.

For instructions on setting metadata in InDesign, see Adobe’s guide on including metadata. Step-by-step instructions can be found under “Add metadata using the File Info dialog box.”

Adding alternate text to images, charts and figures

Just like on the web, images in your PDF must have text alternatives (“alt text”) in order to be accessible to people who can’t see them. While alternate text can be added to a PDF retroactively, it is much easier to add it to the source document.

If you have images in your document that are purely decorative and don’t contain any essential information, they will need to be explicitly marked as decorative (Microsoft Office) or as artifacts (InDesign).

The trouble with tables

Tables are one of the most common troublemakers when it comes to PDF accessibility. They can be very difficult for screen readers to navigate and can be challenging for users to scan and comprehend content.

Before creating a table in your document, ask yourself whether you really need one. Tables should only be used to display data or information that cannot be easily conveyed in other ways, such as a bulleted list.

E.g. Instead of using a table to display application deadlines like this:

  Canadian students International students
Program A December 1 October 1
Program B October 15 August 15

Consider displaying it as an easy-to-read list:

Application deadlines for Program A

  • Canadian students: December 1
  • International students: October 1

Application deadlines for Program B

  • Canadian students: October 15
  • International students: August 15

If you do need to use a table, there are a few steps you can take to ensure it is accessible when you export your document to a PDF:

  • Use the built-in table tools within your program of choice (don’t draw a table using shapes or lines)
  • Mark your header cells appropriately
  • Avoid merged cells wherever possible

Help guides for accessible tables

Fixing issues in a PDF (advanced)

In some cases, you may have inherited a PDF document without access to its source document. While you are not expected to be an expert in fixing accessibility issues in PDFs, there are some tools you can use in Adobe Acrobat that will help you make basic fixes.

Here’s what you can do with relative ease:

If you don’t have access to Adobe Acrobat or need help troubleshooting more complicated issues that come up in your accessibility check, reach out to webcoor@uvic.ca.

Additional resources

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