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Accessible Assistive Technology Resources Advocacy Resources Bridges Blog Series: Self-advocacy September, 2021

Self-advocacy September: Making PDF Documents Accessible

PDF documents are widely used in schools and in employment, but all PDFs are not created equal in terms of accessibility for blind/low vision individuals. This week, the Free Bridges Helpdesk explores PDF documents in terms of self-advocacy for accessibility.

What are PDFs, and why do we use them?

PDF documents are both common and misunderstood. PDF stands for “portable document format,” and it was developed to improve the transfer of documents by allowing people who use different software programs to view files on their computers without losing the original formatting. Adobe provided the free Adobe Acrobat software to facilitate this file-sharing mission.

Unfortunately, accessibility was not a high priority as PDF documents grew in popularity. Many PDFs consisted of photographic “snapshots” of text and graphics. Thus, in the process of creating a PDF, the document creator actually removes accessibility from the otherwise accessible text portion of the document.

Myths about PDFs

“All PDFs can easily be used by everyone.” While widely believed, this is not a true statement. Many PDFs are created as images and are not immediately readable using screen reading software. Additionally, PDFs that are poorly created can cause a screen reader to read the text portions of the document out of order (such as reading the third paragraph on the page before reading the first paragraph.

“All PDFs are inaccessible.” This is not true either. This myth has likely come about as a result of the proliferation of inaccessible and poorly formatted PDFs.

“For screen reader users, it’s always better to avoid PDFs and just use Word documents.” Again, this is not true. For one thing, poorly formatted Word documents can be inaccessible, too. For another thing, screen reader users have the right to enjoy the benefits of accessible PDFs.

Creating accessible PDFs

Like Word documents and PowerPoint slide presentations, PDFs can be created in an accessible manner from the beginning. See the Bridges Blogs “Making Word Documents Accessible” and “Making PowerPoint Documents Accessible.”

There are multiple ways to make PDF documents.

Working with inaccessible PDFs

Of course, you will almost certainly encounter inaccessible PDFs, especially when those documents have not been downloaded or purchased from outside sources. While you definitely have the right to have accessible PDFs, you also need to have access to as much information as possible. The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has prepared Prevent Document Frustration: JAWS and PDFs, a document that outlines several ways to independently access (at least the text portion of) information on an inaccessible PDF using the screen reader JAWS.

Advocating for accessible PDFs

Regardless of whether you are getting inaccessible PDFs at school or at work, we have the right to request, and receive, accessible materials (see the Bridges Blog “Changes in Rights to Accommodations and Modifications.”

In addition to the advocacy tips found in that post, please consider using the information contained in this post in your advocacy. Most people want to provide accessible materials, they just don’t know how to make materials accessible (or what accessibility even is). By showing them how inaccessibility keeps you from using the materials efficiently and showing them how to make the materials accessible, you are empowering them to do what you need.

Reach out to us at the Free Bridges Helpdesk

Let us help! We are here to support blind and low vision transition-age students in Maryland, and we are available to you anytime. Whether you need self-advocacy support one-on-one or you want us to support you in your communications with your teachers (or parents), please know that you are here for you!

We can also help your teachers (both regular education teachers and teachers of blind/low vision students) learn about and implement accessibility best practices. We do not make judgments or criticize anyone. Instead, we meet people where they are and provide support and resources to help them get to where they want to go.

Self-advocacy is a lifetime journey. Please allow us to join you.

Contact us

Follow the Bridges Helpdesk Facebook page for more transition tips, and please contact the Free Helpdesk for Maryland Blind/Low Vision Transition Students, Families, and Educators anytime using:

This unique project is being coordinated through The IMAGE Center of Maryland, a center for independent living in Towson, and it is funded by a grant from the Maryland Department of Education Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services.

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