Fixing PDFs

Fixing PDFs

What is the problem?

PDFs have proven to be a quick and easy way to pass around documents. They are easily read by Windows, Android, MacOS, and iOS platforms. A PDF document can be created from almost any application with little worry that the content will be easily changed or deleted.

That was the intention when the Portable Document Format (PDF) was created in 1991. PDF was developed to share documents, including text formatting and inline images, among computer users of disparate platforms who may not have access to mutually-compatible application software1.  

As intended, PDF is an inflexible document format. However, this creates barriers for some individuals with disabilities. When creating useable and accessible documents, they need to be flexible. This flexibility allows the person to adjust the document so it is easier for them to read and understand. Examples of how this is done include changing the font size, the contrast of the page, or having the page read to them.

There are literally tens of thousands of PDFs within our digital environment. The vast majority are not accessible to individuals using assistive technologies such as screen readers. This is a problem.

How do I know if my PDF is inaccessible?

  • If you are using Canvas and access the information in Ally, you receive a "This PDF is untagged" alert.
  • If a picture was taken of a text document. This creates an inaccessible document.
  • If a multifunction printer/copier was used to scan a document. It creates a picture of that document.
  • "Print to PDF" creates an image-only document.
  • If you are unable to highlight portions of the text to copy, the document is more than likely inaccessible.

What does it mean for a PDF document to be accessible?

  • The text on the document must be "machine readable". This means that you can copy/paste, search within a document, and that it can be read by assistive technologies.
  • It must be "tagged". These tags provide the function and layout of the document. 
  • If the document has images, charts, maps or graphs these all must have alternative text
  • The document must conform to WCAG 2.2 AA standards. The same accessibility standards for web sites apply to digital documents.

What can be done to fix these documents?

  1. Do you really need the document? If not, delete it.
  2. Can the information be presented in HTML (as a web page) or Word.
  3. If the PDF is an article or copy of original work, can a link be provided to the original document.
  4. The document may need to be remediated to create an accessible document. THIS IS NOT EASY! Learning how to remediate an existing inaccessible PDF is difficult and extremely time-consuming. Even when using a tool such as Equidox or Common Look, there is a significant learning curve.
  5. Adobe Acrobat Pro is commonly used to add tags and remediate documents. This tool is not free.
  6. Equidox, a PDF remediation tool, is now available to the University Community through the UVA Digital Accessibility Coordinator's office. Training is required before access is granted to use this tool. 

How can I create accessible PDF documents?

If a PDF must be used:

  • Design your document to be accessible in your authoring tool, then export it as an accessible PDF. Use the accessibility checker built into the tool.
    • Use correct styles to structure
    • A tagged, accessible PDF can be exported from Word. The "Document structure tags for accessibility" must be selected in the Options section. If not, and you simply save as PDF, all structure will be stripped from the document.
  • If you are scanning a document, use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. If that is not available, you may be able save to Word or Text (TXT) rather than PDF. 


More information and additional resources can be found in the Developing Skills/Creating Accessible Content section of this website.


Vendors Who Provide Document Remediation

Companies to contact for document remediation services:


1. History of PDF (accessed May 2024)