Create accessible PDFs from Word documents

Wherever possible, UAS sections should publish information on web pages rather than PDFs. One reason for this is the limited accessibility of PDF documents. Another is PDFs perform poorly in search; this means PDF content will get few (if any) views from organic search.

If publishing a PDF is the only feasible option, UAS sections have to maximise their accessibility to people using screen reading software (also called assistive readers).

To achieve this, PDFs should only be created from Word documents. Scanned documents or design-heavy conversions from PowerPoint lack important information that assistive readers need in order to recognise the underlying structure of a document.

Below is a list of techniques to follow when converting Word documents into PDFs.

Mark headings correctly

To provide orientation for readers who use screen reading software, make sure headings and subheadings are marked correctly. This information is then translated when you create a PDF.

It is not enough to change headings' font size or font weight to distinguish it from normal text.

Instead, use the Styles and Formatting menu to create and apply headings to text items. Mark the text that will be your heading and select Heading 1, Heading 2 and so on from the list of styles in the ‘Home’ section of the Word menu. These pre-set styles can be modified to your needs via right click.

Create bookmarks

  • To help users navigate long PDFs, make sure your document’s headings are correctly translated into bookmarks. Users can then jump to the right section of the document, using the navigation pane automatically created from the headings.
  • To ensure the headings are correctly translated into PDF bookmarks, you need to select the right options when you convert your Word document into a PDF. Use the ‘Save as’ menu and select PDF as the file type. Click the ‘Options’ button that appears and make sure that ‘Create bookmarks using: Headings’ is selected. Note that this option is only available if your document contains correctly marked headings.

Use list tags

To ensure lists are being transformed correctly into your PDF and then understood by screen reading software, make sure to use the bullets or numbering options provided by Word, rather than just using paragraphing. 

  • Bad example:

- Item number 1
- Item number 2

  • Good example:
    • Item number 3
    • Item number 4

Use descriptive link text

Do not insert the full URL when providing hyperlinks, especially if it is very long. Instead, use a unique and descriptive link text that tells the reader what happens when they click on it. Avoid generic link text such as ‘click here'.

Provide headers or footers

Readers with visual impairments find headers and footers useful for orientation within the document, especially if it contains many pages or even several chapters.

In any case, you should provide running page numbers. But additional information like chapter title and the author can also be useful in longer documents.

Mark columns correctly

If you are displaying your text in two or more columns, use the Page Layout menu to set this up rather than creating the layout manually with text boxes. This ensures assistive readers interpret the reading order of the document correctly.

Tag images with alternative text

If your document includes images or graphics that are not just decorative but contain important information, provide a description of this information - so called ‘alt text’ or ‘alternative text’. This property will be translated into the PDF and can be picked up by screen reading software.

You can find the alt text option if you right-click on an image, select ‘Format Picture’ and in the menu opening on the right hand side, select ‘Layout & Properties’.

Make sure that your alt text accurately summarises any data shown in the image.

  • Bad example: “A graph showing the rise of applications in recent years.”
  • Good example: “The graph shows that between 2007 and 2017 application numbers have risen by 25%, from 1,000 to 1,250.”

Make tables more accessible

Word has only limited functionality to help screen readers interpret tables, but there are some things you can do to help.

  1. Select ‘Header Row’ in the Table Tools menu to mark the first row of the table as the header row. You can also do this with the last row by ticking the ‘Total Row’ checkbox. This information will be translated when converting the document into a PDF and can be picked up by assistive readers.
  2. Display the header row on each page in case the table breaks across pages. Right-click in the header row, select ‘Table Properties’ and go to the ‘Row’ tab to find the respective checkbox.
  3. Provide a summary of the table’s information in the Alt Text box in the ‘Table Properties’ menu.

Try out screen reading software

If you want to test the accessibility of your documents, download the free NVDA screen reader. You do not need to install this on your computer, as the programme can be run directly from the downloaded file.

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