How to make PDF Section 508 Compliant

Download W-9

How to make PDFs 508 Compliant

A portable document format (PDF) is a file format created by Adobe to create standard consistency when a document is physically printed from a standard printer.  It is also used to freeze or lock content that should remain intact or in context with other information. 

Often, we will post PDF files to our website, which could be a challenge for assistive technology to interpret in such a way that people with impairments or disabilities could perceive and understand.  For example, a photo or graph may be embedded within a PDF but without a file name or alt tag then the screen reader may not know how to describe this image.

There are a number of ways that we can work to ensure that our PDFs are both web accessible and Section 508 compliant:

  1. Structure the original source code properly.  For example, suppose you are using Microsoft Word to create the document.  Be sure to use assign the appropriate style and formating to the appropriate section of the document.  The document’s title should be formatted as Title.  The primary header for that page should be a Heading 1.  Secondary headings should be formatted as a Heading 2.  Hyperlinks should be inserted within the anchor text that describe the link, not simply repeated verbatim.
  2. Use a PDF writer or PDF converter that supports ISO standards and web accessibility.  Not all PDF writers are built the same.  A web accessibile PDF writer will allow the author to modify accessibility tags. 
  3. Run an Accessibility Check.  When you convert your document to a PDF, ensure that you run an Advanced > Accessibility > Check.  This report will often alert you to potential web accessibility problems and allow you the opportunity to resolve these issues.  The attributes that should be checked include:
    1. Alternative descriptions for images and multimedia
    2. Text language specification
    3. Reliable character encoding
    4. Content is structured with format and styling
    5. Field forms have descriptions
    6. Tab order is consistent with structure
    7. Lists and tables are structured and labeled
  4. Document the properties.  After you have made the PDF, go to the File > Properties and fill in as much information within the form fields as possible.  Document properties include: description (title, author, subject, keywords) and additional metadata (copyright notice).
  5. Provide an alternative version.  When possible, provide an HTML version or translation of the PDF*.

* Note: this is one of the rare occasions when SEO and web accessibility may inherently conflict.  Google discourages duplicate content across the Internet and works hard to not index duplicate content.  An HTML version of a PDF represents potentially duplicate content.  Google will have to decide which version is the original.  In some rare cases, Google will de-index and/or penalize a site for displaying duplicate content.