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How to Make a PDF Accessible on Your School's Website
Connor Gleason

ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) began in the 1960s when individuals advocated for millions of individuals to gain equal access to the physical and digital world. It's important to make the world more inclusive and guarantee these rights for individuals under the law, and in today's digital age, it continues to make an impact when individuals access the Internet.

Accessibility is a human right; therefore, it's imperative to ensure your school's website and its content are ADA-compliant and accessible. PDFs — one of the most commonly used pieces of content on school websites — cause some of the biggest issues for schools looking to make their sites compliant, as there is no real "easy way" to fix them.

What Makes a PDF Accessible?

By definition, PDFs (Portable Document Format) capture all the elements of a printed document as an electronic image. Whether they're being used on your website or being sent out in an email newsletter, they must be as accessible as possible. Many are not...

It's not easy, but the simplest path to create an accessible PDF is similar to the accessibility features you'd find on your school's website.

  • Text Recognition: Accessible PDFs contain actual text, not just images of text. This allows screen readers to read the content aloud for visually impaired users.
  • Alt Text for Images: Images within the PDF should have alternative text descriptions, enabling screen readers to describe them accurately.
  • Logical Reading Order: The content should follow a logical structure and reading order, which is especially important for assistive technologies.
  • Navigation: The use of bookmarks, headings, and links in the PDF helps users navigate the content more efficiently.
  • Color Contrast and Font Size: Adequate contrast between text and background and resizable text is important for visually impaired users.
  • Language Specification: Setting the language of the document allows screen readers to use the correct pronunciation rules.

Keep Reading: Maintaining an Accessible School Website

What Makes a PDF Inaccessible?

The following PDF accessibility guidelines might be what it takes to make your documents user-friendly for people with disabilities and meet ADA standards:

  • Scanned Images of Text: These are not readable by screen readers.
  • Complex Layouts: Multi-column layouts or text that flows around images can confuse screen readers.
  • Lack of Proper Tag Structure: Without these, screen readers can't interpret the tag structure of the document.
  • Color Contrast: Poor contrast makes reading hard for visually impaired users.


Recreating a PDF on Your School's Website

Since creating accessible PDFs can take some time, there should be a process in place to ensure an inaccessible document doesn't end up on your website.

  • Identify Key Information: Extract the essential information from the PDF.
  • Create Web Content: Use your school's content management system (CMS) to recreate web pages that incorporate this information.
  • Ensure Accessibility: Apply web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) to make sure the content is accessible to all users.
  • Optimize for Mobile Devices: Ensure that the content is responsive and works well on various screen sizes.
  • Test with Screen Readers: Validate the accessibility with tools and screen reader software.
Tukwila District handbook

Tukwila School District reimagined its student handbook and put it online with the help of Finalsite's Posts. Now, content is more accessible and searchable, and content can be easily updated.

beaverton handbook screenshot

Beaverton School District takes a similar approach with its handbook and keeps information tidy and mobile-friendly with accordions that act as a table of contents.

Creating Content with Accessibility in Mind

Using a similar approach to how you would build and maintain an ADA-compliant website, there are key factors to consider when creating content with accessibility in mind. Making PDFs accessible can be done with these basic instructions.

  • Organization: It is important to write content clearly and simply, as well as organize it logically. You want the reader to be able to understand the content as it is being presented.
  • Images: With images, alternative text (ALT text) needs to be added to each image so an individual who cannot see the image can understand what is happening. You can also add long descriptions to explain this as well. It's recommended that you avoid using images of text in your PDFs, as screen readers wouldn't be able to translate the image to all users.
  • Color: For color, you need to ensure you're using proper color contrast and not relying on color alone to convey meaning.
  • Links: It is also common in PDFs to include links to other resources. In this case, you need to include descriptive, meaningful text for the link so individuals understand where the link will take them. You should avoid using "learn more" or "click here" as those are very broad phrases.

Keep Reading: 5 Steps to Building and Maintaining an ADA-Compliant Website

Checking PDFs for Accessibility

Adobe Acrobat includes a built-in PDF Accessibility Checker tool that helps identify and fix common issues that might prevent the document from being digitally accessible to users with disabilities.

Adobe Accessibility Checker

Here's how you can use it:

  1. Open Your PDF: Launch Adobe Acrobat and open the PDF file you want to check.
  2. Access the Accessibility Checker:
  3. Go to the "Tools" tab.
  4. Find and select the "Accessibility" tool from the list. This opens the Accessibility Checker panel.
  5. Run the Full Check:
    1. In the Accessibility Checker panel, click on "Full Check" or "Accessibility Check" depending on your version of Acrobat.
    2. This opens a dialog box where you can configure the checking options. For a comprehensive check, leave all options selected.
  6. Click "Start Checking". The Accessibility Checker will then analyze the PDF.
  7. Review Results:
    1. After the check is complete, the results are displayed in the Accessibility Checker panel.
    2. The tool groups issues into types like “Errors”, “Warnings”, and “Passed Checks”.
    3. Common issues might include missing alternative text for images, lack of logical reading order, or missing document language.
  8. Fix Accessibility Issues:
    1. You can fix many issues directly in Acrobat Pro. For example, you can add alt text to images, correct reading order, and set document properties.
  9. The Accessibility Checker provides hints and recommendations for fixing specific problems.

Once you address any errors in the document, you can run the full check again to ensure you have resolved these errors and have ensured your PDF is fully accessible. From there, you can re-save the document so it is ready to be shared.

Keep ReadingHow to Choose Your School's Website Accessibility Solution

While it's possible to create a PDF that is more accessible, many advocacy groups recommend recreating PDFs on your website — and there are several reasons why.

Why Reducing or Recreating PDFs is a Better Option

Why and how to make school website PDF content more accessible and user-friendly.

  • Universal Access: Web content is generally more accessible than PDFs and can be easily read by various assistive technologies.
  • Better User Experience: Web content is easier to navigate and interact with, especially on mobile devices.
  • SEO Benefits: Search engines index web content more effectively than PDFs, improving the visibility of the information.
  • Ease of Updating: How many times have you needed to edit and re-upload a PDF? Updating information on a web page is easier than editing and re-uploading a PDF again and agian.
  • Analytics Tracking: Webpages allow for more detailed tracking of user engagement compared to PDFs.

Key Takeaway

Sure, you can tweak a PDF to make it a slightly more accessible document, but it's not the best long-term solution. The smarter move is to turn those PDFs into web-based content to make things easier for everyone who visits your site. By moving away from PDFs and embracing digital accessibility standards, you're ensuring everyone can get the info they need, regardless of their abilities.

Register for a free online course: Building accessibility into Your Communications Plans

Connor Gleason Headshot


Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.

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