Many designers rely on Acrobat’s accessibility checker to determine whether their PDF files are accessible or not. But like other automated checkers, it has limitations and can give false positives. Find out some things to look for and how to ensure your documents are accessible.
I see a lot of designers thinking they’re creating accessible files—PDF files—because they’re running the Acrobat Accessibility Checker when they’re done exporting a PDF from InDesign, Word, or another program.
But the problem is that the Acrobat Accessibility Checker is an automated tool that can only detect about 30% of accessibility issues.
Sometimes there are false positives. It is not the be-all-end-all of checking your PDF.
Even if your accessibility checker options are all checked and the permission flag is set, that it’s not an image-only PDF, that it’s a tagged PDF, the language is specified, etc., it’s still only able to detect certain things and you have to know how to fix them.
First off, every time that you run the checker, it’s always going to flag two document issues. It’s always going to say that the logical reading order and color contrast need a manual check.
That’s because no automated checker can tell if the text is in the correct reading order or if something shouldn’t be in the reading order.
It can’t check the color contrast.
It can tell you that it’s passed or failed for the presence of a title. But is it a good title for the document or not?
When it checks for alternate text, it can check that Alt-text is present on images. But it can’t say whether or not that is appropriate Alt-text.
There could be Alt-text on an image that shouldn’t have Alt-text at all. That should be artifacted because it’s decorative.
Another thing it checks for is headings. Are they appropriately nested?
Well, maybe you have body text that you’ve styled as a heading that really shouldn’t be a heading, but it passes the checker because the headings are in the correct order. It can’t tell that either.
There’s a lot more checking that needs to be done. A lot of it is manual checking and some of it can be done in other programs.
Some of the manual checking that’s important to do is checking the order panel and the tags tree.
The reason for checking the reading order in the Order panel and the tags tree is because some screen readers go by one and not the other.
If the reading order is correct in both places, you’re helping ensure that any screen reader is going to read it properly as you intended. Because the order that content appears on the page is not the order in which a screen reader is going to read it.
Oftentimes when I’m looking at the order panel in Acrobat of other designers files, it’s all over the place.
There are things being read in a nonsensical order. You’ve got running headers and footers getting read that shouldn’t even be there, in the first place.
The text is all in the wrong order. Columns are reading in the wrong order, all kinds of things.
Someone using a screen reader—if they read that—will not make any sense of that document. It’s always important to check that.
The other place to check the reading order is in the Tags panel. Open the Tags panel on the left-hand side, then click on the first tag, and then walk the tags tree with the down arrow.
When you find those kinds of mistakes with the reading order. It’s important to go back to the source document if you have one or if you’re working from one.
Then fix the order there before you start doing the final work in the PDF.
Otherwise, if you have to fix other things in the source files and go back and re-export the PDF.
You don’t want to have to do all that work all over again in the PDF. It’s better to go back to the source file to fix those things.
The Acrobat checker is not the end of the process. It’s the troubleshooting process.
For example, I use it throughout the process, and only when I know that I’ve corrected all the errors that could appear there, and check the reading order in both places will then I move on to another checker that is more comprehensive.
That’s the PAC3 checker. It checks against the PDF/UA standard.
The PAC3 checker is free and it’s for Windows only. It’s supposed to be coming out for Mac as well.
So if you’re a Mac user, you’re going to need to get an old PC, or you’re going to need to run Windows on your Mac with Parallels or VirtualBox or Boot Camp.
After using the Acrobat Accessibility Checker and going back to InDesign—if that’s what you’re using—or Word and fixing those issues, then you can make sure you pass the Acrobat Accessibility Checker and then go run that PDF in PAC3 and correct the errors that are found there.
Now with PAC3, you can use an acrobat preflight setting to fix some of those things, or you can use other software to do that.
You can’t always go back to the source file to fix those things. It’s just how it is and you have to do that work in the PDF, or with a repair program.
I hope you found this helpful. If you’re interested in learning more about document accessibility, and how to check your files, and how to fix them.
Don’t miss CreativePro Week from May 17th to the 21st this year.
I’ll be speaking on Time-Saving InDesign Practices That You’re Probably Avoiding—some of them pertaining to accessibility.
I’m also doing a talk called Essential Tools and Services for Accessibility.
My mentor Bevi Chagnon, and my friends, Dax Castro and Chad Chelius will also be presenting on document accessibility.
Accessibility has been a game changer for my business. If you want to learn how you can charge more, stand out from other designers and win more work, check out my accessibility courses for designers and for web developers.
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