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Accessible PDF Documents

When creating electronic documents, it is vital they are readable by people with disabilities. In this tutorial, I worked with a Microsoft Word document. The following standards need to be followed to ensure your documents are accessible.

NOTE: Always consider creating a webpage for your content instead of posting it as an electronic document.


If the MSWord document is the older .doc file type, save the file with the newer .docx extension. The older file format (.doc) will not tag the file properly for screen readers.

Naming the File

Use a unique, descriptive file name when naming your documents. Avoid using spaces. Instead, use camel case or underscores when naming files.


Agenda.pdfcv for profile.docx


ACCESSIBLE examples:



Document Title

Always set the Title in documents: In Microsoft Word go to File/Properties and click the Summary tab. In Adobe Acrobat go to File/Properties and click the Description tab.

Document Language

Setting the language of a document ensures that the screen reader uses the correct language profile. In Microsoft Word, go to the Review tab / Language.

If the document contents more than one language, select the text within the document in the different language and set that text to the appropriate language.


Headings provide the organization of the content within the document. Headings form an outline of the content. Screen readers give users the ability to navigate a document using headings as long as the headings are organized properly. The most important heading is the Heading 1 usually the title and is used only once. This is followed by a Heading 2 then nested within a Heading 2 will be a Heading 3 and nested with a Heading 3 a Heading 4.


List content should utilize the tools within the authoring software that create unordered lists (with bullets) or ordered lists (with numbers).

Ordered (numbered)

  • Attend SDSU.
  • Graduate.

Unordered (bullets)

  • Jack
  • Weary Will
  • Dirty Lil
Alternative text

Alternative text or alt text provides a means to communicate the content of an image to people who cannot see it.

To set the alternative text in MS Word, select or click on the image and go to Format/ Picture then on the right click the Layout and Properties and fill in the Description field under Alt text.


There are two basic uses for tables on the web: data tables and layout tables. The intended use of tables is for tabular data. A data table is a table when row headers, column headers, or both are present.

Keep data tables simple with clearly defined columns and rows. Do not merge or split cells in data tables.

Set the header row in data tables. Make sure the first row of the table is differentiated as the header row, or where the table's categories live. To add a table header in Microsoft Word, select the first row, right click and select Table Properties, and check "Repeat as header row at the top of each page." This will ensure the heading tag is properly added to the table.

Avoid using tables to layout content, in Microsoft Word, use Layout/Columns instead.

Use of Color

Ensure that color is not the only way to convey meaning. If color is used to identify elements, also provide additional means of distinguishing one item from another. For example, if a blue colored background is used in a table row to indicate that a course is required, add an asterisk or some other symbol in the row as well.

Color Contrast

For level AA, ensure that a 4.5:1 contrast ratio exists between text color and background color. Use a Color Contrast Checker like on the site to check your colors for proper contrast.

Tools to Avoid

Microsoft Word tools such as Text Box, Quick Parts, WordArt, Watermarks and Drop Caps are NOT accessible formatting tools. Do Not use a formatting tool that places a letter into a Text Box. A screen reader will not recognize this as text to be read.

PDF Forms

If you have forms in electronic documents, consider having them converted to web form by IT Office. On InsideState, go to the Technology & Security tab then in the left navigation bar click Forms and scroll down to Request Online Payment or Non-payment Form to request a web form.

Creating Interactive PDF Form

If you do have forms within electronic documents they will need to be interactive forms rather than static to be accessible.

Steps to make your PDF forms accessible using Adobe Acrobat Pro

  1. Automatically detect & markup form fields (Tools > Forms > Create)
  2. Manually add/edit and form fields that weren’t correctly detected
  3. Check tab order; repair if needed
  4. Check all labels (tooltips); repair if needed
  5. Check group labels and options for radio buttons; repair if needed
  6. Check labels for checkboxes; repair if needed
Check Accessibility

Always, Always, ALWAYS check your documents with the Accessibility Checker tool and fix any errors (and warning where possible).

To access the Accessibility Checker in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, go to Tools/Check Accessibility and in Acrobat got to Tools/Accessibility.

Show Formatting Marks

TIP: Superfluous spaces, tabs and hard returns in your documents can create accessibility issues. Show formatting marks in MSWord to see and remove them.


Documents should be exported as electronic PDFs. Word documents must be .docx to accessible.

When saving your Microsoft Word document to a PDF, be sure to check "Best for electronic distribution and accessibility" in the Save As pane.


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formatting marks tool bar in MSWord