When we talk about PDF accessibility, the source document is the original file that the PDF is created from. This can be a Word document, InDesign, or a Canva template, to name a few.

If the source document is created with accessibility in mind, then it can be exported to a more accessible PDF.

Starting with an accessible source document can save you time as there will be fewer items to fix in Foxit PDF Editor Pro.

What should an accessible source document include?

Accessible documents are structured in a way that makes them easy to read and navigate for assistive technology users. Accessible documents include the following:

After applying the above best practices as needed, you can check your work with Word’s built-in accessibility checker. Then be sure to save your document as a PDF using options for digital accessibility.

Once you are done with the source document, move on to checking the exported PDF’s accessibility in Foxit PDF Editor Pro.

For this guide, we’ll use a Microsoft Word document for our example. However these same tools and concepts can be applied in other programs, such as InDesign and Publisher.

If you are creating a PDF with Canva

Canva does not export PDFs with tags at this time. As a result, PDFs created with Canva must have tags added using Foxit PDF Editor Pro.

If you are working on a Canva document, review this guide for awareness, but focus on the sections about avoiding color reliance, and using sufficient color contrast. Then move on to Make PDFs Accessible with Foxit PDF Editor Pro: Part 1.

Document metadata for title

Document metadata provides screen readers and search engines meta information that makes the document more searchable. Therefore, document metadata should always include an accurate title.

The title should be relevant and is usually what you would use as the first heading in the document.

To find the document properties in Word:

  1. Go to File > Info. Properties will be listed on the right hand side of the screen.
  2. Under Properties, add the Title by clicking “Add a title” text, and then typing in your title.
  3. Save your changes.
The Info screen in Microsoft Word
After opening the File menu, click Info. Edit and add the Title under Properties.

Headings that make content easier to navigate

Use built-in heading styles to organize the content in your document. Built-in headings provide an easy to navigate outline of the document for assistive technology users.

This doesn’t mean just making text bigger using the font options, but using the predefined “Heading 1,” “Heading 2,” etc, styles that are in the styles menu under the “Home” tab.

Heading 1 should be used only once for the title of your document.

Heading styles are located under the Home menu in Microsoft Word.
Heading styles are located in the ribbon under the “Home” section/tab.

Update default heading styles

Optionally, you can change the default appearance of heading styles. This allows you to style headings for your needs, while also using them to add an accessible outline.

To update the appearance of a heading style in Word:

  1. Under the Home tab, locate and right click the heading style you want to change. Select “Modify.”
  2. In the “Modify Style” window, make your changes to the heading style with the options. Once done, click “OK.
  3. Your headings that already use the heading style should update.
  4. Save your changes.
Change heading styles in the "Modify Style" window of Microsoft Word
In the “Modify Style” window, you can update the appearance of a base heading style. Changes will apply to existing headings.

Images with alt text

All images in your document should include alt text. Alt text can be read by screen readers, and should accurately and concisely describe the image.

To add alt text to an image in Word:

  1. Select the image in your document and right click. Select “Edit Alt Text” from the menu.
  2. In the Alt Text pane, add your alt text to the field. If the image is decorative – like a decorative border or some other element that doesn’t add meaning to the document – then you can instead check the box for “Mark as decorative“.
  3. Save your changes.
The menu options for an image in Microsoft Word
Right click on the image, and select “Edit Alt Text” from the menu.
The Alt Text pane in Microsoft Word
In the Alt Text pane, add your description of the image.

The Alt Text pane for images has a “Generate alt text for me” button in Word. You can use this option, but be sure to check and correct the generated alt text for accuracy. Does it get across what you want the reader to know about the image?

Link text should be descriptive in your document. Avoid vague link text like “click here,” “learn more,” “info,” etc.

Instead, your link text should describe where it will take the visitor. This can be the page title of the page you’re linking, or a specific call to action. E.g.: “Summer Camp Schedule” and “Contact your local office.”

Example of a inaccessible, non-descriptive link that says "clicking here"
DON’T do this. The link “clicking here” is not descriptive and means nothing out of context.
Example of an accessible, descriptive link that says "Summer camp registration"
Instead, do this. The link “Summer camp registration” is descriptive and lets us know where the link will take us.

Never use web addresses as link text

Link text should never be a web address. For example, never have your link text be addresses like: “https://extension.uga.edu/topic-areas/animal-production/dairy.html.” Instead, use something more human friendly and readable. Example: “Dairy Resources on UGA Extension.”

Keep links on one line of text

Finally, avoid allowing link text to span more than one line of text. This will result in two links that go to the same destination on two separate links, and with incomplete link text for each.

Example of a link spanning two links in Microsoft Word
DON’T do this. The link “Your Good Credit Series” spans two lines, and will result in two separate text links when exported to PDF.
Link that spans just one line in Microsoft Word
Instead, do this. The paragraph has been edited to ensure that the link only spans one line.

Avoid color reliance to convey information

Do not rely on color to convey information. Color reliance can be a problem for users with low vision, color perception deficiencies, and color blindness.

Use other visual cues in addition to color for charts and graphs

Make sure charts and graphs in your document use other visual cues, in addition to color, to represent information. For example, you can use direct text labels on parts of graphs, or use patterns in addition to colors. Also, remember to add alt text to images of charts!

Pie chart shows "number of books read." Martina has read 4 books, 18%. Amelia has read 8 books, 36%. Lina has read 10 books, 46%.
The pie chart above uses two techniques to avoid color reliance. It uses explicit labels to represent the information in each wedge. It also uses patterns to fill the chart, instead of colors. You can use just one technique, as long as you ensure the information is conveyed without relying on color.

Include underlines on links

Links should include other visual cues (apart from color) to indicate they are clickable. The standard is that links are also underlined. This means you should also avoid underlining text that isn’t a link!

Link in a Word document that is only distinguished by color
DON’T do this. The link does not have an underline and is only distinguished by color. Stick with default underlines on links.

Sufficient color contrast for text and backgrounds

Text in your document should have sufficient color contrast against the background. Text with low color contrast against its background has poor legibility, and can be a problem for users with certain types of color blindness, or have trouble differentiating between similar colors.

A color contrast ratio of 4.5:1 is required for text smaller than 14 pt, and 3:1 for larger than 14 pt. This meets minimum requirements for WCAG level AA.

Black text (hex code #000000) on a white background (#ffffff) is safe to use, with a color contrast ratio of 21:1. You can manually check other color combinations using WebAIM’s Contrast Checker.

WebAIM's color contrast checker tool testing a failed grey foreground color over white
WebAIM’s contrast checker shows that a light grey color (#bdbdbd) over a white background (#ffffff) fails our minimum requirement of meeting WCAG AA standards (4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text).
WebAIM's color contrast checker testing a passed foreground color of black over white
The contrast checker shows that a black foreground color (#000000) meets WCAG AA requirements, with a 21:1 contrast ratio.

Tables with header rows, alt text, and simple structure

Table headers

Make sure tables in your document include a header row. Header rows provide context for body cells to screen reader users as they navigate the table.

To add a header row to a table in Word:

  1. After inserting a table, select the table and click on the “Table Design” option from the top menu.
  2. Check “Header Row.” This will set the first row to be a header, and will change its design accordingly.
  3. Add text to your header row to define the data in the column.
  4. Save your changes.
Adding a table header in Microsoft Word
Add your table header by selecting the table, clicking “Table Design” from the top menu, and then checking “Header Row”. Add text to the header row cells to define the data in the columns.

Alt text for tables

Tables in your document should include a title and alt text. Both are read aloud to a screen reader user. The title allows the user to determine if they want to hear the description. The description should be a summary of the information conveyed in the table that sighted users would get from scanning it.

To add alt text to a table in Word:

  1. Right click anywhere on the table. Select “Table Properties” from the menu.
  2. In the “Table Properties” window, go to the “Alt Text” tab.
  3. Fill in the title and the description. When done, click “OK“.
  4. Save your changes.
Right clicking on a table in Microsoft Word and then choosing "Table Properties" from the menu
Right click the table and choose “Table Properties” from the menu.
"Table Properties" window in Microsoft Word, set to the Alt Text tab
The “Table Properties” window’s alt text tab has fields for Title and Description.

Simple structure

When adding tables to your document, it’s best to keep their structure simple. This means avoid merging table cells and applying more than one “header” row or column.

While not impossible, it takes time and skill to make complex tables accessible for assistive technology users. Opt for simpler tables when possible. When there are no other options, reach out to the Web Team for guidance on making complex tables accessible.

Example of a simple table in Microsoft Word
This is an example of a simple table. It uses a header row to define data in the columns, and none of the cells are merged.

Long tables that span multiple pages

If you have a long table that spans multiple pages, be sure to turn on “repeat header rows.” You can do this by:

  1. Click inside the table
  2. From the top menu, select the “Layout” tab
  3. Click “Repeat Header Rows”

Lists for scannable content

Often we use numbered or bulleted lists to help summarize information, and make it more scannable.

Be sure to use the built-in list formatting options when making lists, instead of manually typing in numbers or bullets. The defined list styles will provide a structure that makes it scannable for a screen reader user.

In Word, you can find the list styles under Home > Paragraph.

Use defined list styles in Microsoft Word to format lists.
Use defined list styles for formatting a list.

Accessibility Checker

Microsoft Word (and other programs) have built-in accessibility checks. These automated checks will find obvious accessibility issues in your document, such as missing alt text or missing table headers.

Note that the accessibility checker does not check the quality of these items. For example, it can only check if alt text is present, but it can’t check if it describes the image accurately. It is up to you to manually review items like alt text to ensure they are useful.

To access the accessibility checker in Word:

  1. Click the “Review” tab in the top menu.
  2. Click “Check Accessibility” and then click the first option (also named “Check Accessibility“).
  3. This will open the Accessibility pane. Errors the checker has found, and where they’re located , will be listed. Review and make corrections as needed.
Click the review tab and then check accessibility to run an accessibility check in Microsoft Word
Click the “Review” tab in Word, and then click the “Check Accessibility” option.
The Accessibility pane on the right will list any current errors in your document, and where to find them.

Saving as a PDF

When it’s time to save your document as PDF, do not use the “Print as PDF” option. This option exports a PDF that is ideal for print, but not for digital accessibility, and will remove the accessibility features you have added so far.

Instead, save your PDF using these steps:

  1. Select File > Save As.
  2. Under the file name, click the dropdown menu and select “PDF” from the list of file types. Then click “More Options.”
  3. In the Save As window, make sure that “Standard (publishing online and printing)” is selected from the “Optimize for” options. The click the “Options” button.
  4. Ensure that “Document structure tags for accessibility” is checked. Click OK.
  5. Save your PDF.
Choosing PDF and selecting the More options link in the Save As screen of Microsoft Word
Under File > Save as, choose “PDF” from the file options in the dropdown. Then click “More Options.”
Selecting options to enable greater accessibility in the "Save As" window of Microsoft Word
In the “Save As” window, make sure “Standard (publishing online and printing)” is selected. Click “Options.”
Ensuring "Document structure tags for accessibility" is checked in the Save As > Options window of Microsoft Word
In the “Options” window, make sure that “Document structure tags for accessibility” is checked.

Checking PDF accessibility in Foxit PDF Editor Pro

We’re not done yet! The final step is to open your saved PDF in Foxit PDF Editor Pro and check the document’s “tags.” Tags in PDFs are key to accessibility because they communicate the structure and types of content to assistive technology.

Move on to PDF Accessibility Part 3: Remediation in Foxit PDF Editor Pro.

Need help?

If you have questions regarding PDF and document accessibility, please reach out to the Web Team at caesweb@uga.edu.