Making PDFs accessible to all

Asian young blind person woman with headphone using computer with refreshable braille display or braille terminal a technology device for persons with visual disabilities.

Image credit: Adobe Stock/ Chansom Pantip.

PDF continues to be at the center of how we work and live. PDFs are how governments publish important public service information to citizens, how education institutions distribute learning materials, and how financial institutions share statements and insurance claims. Retail and e-commerce businesses also disclose important product and services information in PDF format.

And yet, PDFs have not historically been equally accessible to all. Imagine a world where any customer, employee, or student reliant on assistive technologies for reading documents could access any PDF and get the user experience they deserve, where they did not have to wait for someone to manually remediate PDFs from scratch.

Here at Adobe, we know we need to do more to make PDFs accessible. While automation cannot fully solve the problem, our latest application programming interface (API) service can help make the remediation process for large amounts of PDFs faster and more efficient.

The (in)accessibility problem

Over 1.3 billion people experience significant disability — that’s 16 percent of the world’s population, or one in six of us. There are trillions of PDFs out in the world and more than 90 percent of those PDFs today are at least partially inaccessible, appearing blank, blurry, or like complex code for individuals with disabilities.

Making PDF documents accessible traditionally has been challenging. Organizations need to ensure documents for customers and employees alike are accessible, so there are heaps of documents to remediate. Those documents may have inconsistent quality when they are designed by different agencies and in various applications. Most organizations are also likely to have insufficient staffing and budget to remediate at scale.

PDF accessibility is not only the right thing to do for your customers and employees, but also may be a pressing legal requirement. The European Accessibility Act (EAA) requires certain manufacturers, publishers, and service providers to supply the European market with products and services that comply with the directive’s accessibility requirements. This Act will come into force on June 28, 2025.

There is also Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits federal agencies from buying, developing, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology that is inaccessible to people with disabilities. This requires federal websites to provide accessible content. Institutions that receive federal funding are expected to meet similar digital accessibility requirements.

Unfortunately, some organizations have had to deal with the consequences of digital inaccessibility. It is estimated that U.S. companies spent over one billion dollars on legal fees in 2020 responding to demand letters and legal action related to digital accessibility. From 2018 to 2022, the number of digital accessibility lawsuits grew by 75 percent.

Accelerate remediation at scale with Adobe PDF Accessibility Auto-Tag API

To read a document’s text and present it in a way that makes sense to people using assistive technology, such as a screen reader, the document must be structured. Document structure tags in a PDF identify headings, paragraphs, sections, tables, and other page elements as well as indicate the reading order. The tags structure also allows for documents to be resized and reflowed for viewing at larger sizes and on mobile devices.

Powered by Adobe Sensei AI, the Adobe PDF Accessibility Auto-Tag API automatically identifies the reading order and tags different content types such as tables, headings, lists, paragraphs, and figures accurately. It can be used on both native and scanned PDFs.

Image of an invoice using Adobe PDF Accessibility Auto-Tag API.

Given how slow and complicated manually tagging PDFs can be, most organizations today are forced to pick and choose which documents to remediate. With this API, we are aiming to raise the bar on accessibility across PDFs in an organization using automation. It can be used to tag backlogs of existing PDFs at scale or to add tags to new document workflows. And while you still need to check for compliance manually in Acrobat and make any final fixes, the API can help reduce the risk while improving the end-user experience considerably.

We’re also releasing connectors for Microsoft Power Automate to enable the remediation of PDFs in bulk inside Microsoft 365. Learn more about how to use these connectors for tagging here.

An early adopter of the PDF Accessibility Auto-Tag API, the State of New Mexico has seen remediation time for newer documents cut down by 50 percent, according to Maurice Alvarez, Assistive Technology Specialist. Examples include flyers to invite professionals along with people with disabilities in the community to attend workshops on various assistive technologies. Having an accessible PDF ensures that everyone gets the same information.

Other Adobe document accessibility solutions

Adobe Acrobat supports consumers with disabilities with enhanced PDF reading and signing experiences. Adobe Liquid Mode, which is available in Acrobat Reader for mobile and built with Adobe Sensei AI, automatically ‘reflows’ PDFs into a more readable format for smaller screens, reducing the need to pinch and zoom to read PDFs. Liquid Mode is also available in Acrobat Sign for mobile so users can sign PDFs more easily on smaller screens.

Acrobat Pro Accessibility Setup Assistant enables user to determine how Acrobat displays documents and interacts with assistive technologies.

For organizations, Acrobat Pro can help assess and fix PDF accessibility. The Accessibility Check tool in Acrobat Pro assists accessibility specialists in verifying whether and to what extent a document conforms to accessibility standards, such as PDF/UA and WCAG. It produces an Accessibility Report that summarizes the accessibility check findings and contains links to tools and documentation that assist in fixing problems. The Make Accessible action provides a step-by-step guide to make the PDF accessible.

Try the new Adobe PDF Accessibility Auto-Tag API, available in playground mode, today.

The above is not meant to constitute legal advice. Please seek independent legal counsel to determine what accessibility standards you may need to meet as an organization.

Special thanks to Mehak Garg, senior product marketing manager for Acrobat Services, for co-authoring this article.