Strategy for handling legacy PDF accessibility

The web is saturated with Portable Document Format (PDF) files. For more than 20 years PDF has been the Defacto standard for print documents on the web. PDF files are also notorious for their lack of accessibility. With legacy PDFs running into the thousands on many websites, just how can you tackle the job of making them accessible?

When asked this question recently, a colleague of mine at Nomensa responded with “how do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time”. It’s good advice.

Considering your entire legacy PDF collection in one go is a bad idea. It’s enough to make you ignore the problem for another few months in the hope it might just go away. It doesn’t of course, and meanwhile your PDF collection continues to grow.

The trick is to break it down into manageable pieces.

Make new PDFs accessible

The first thing you want to do is stop new PDFs from being created with poor accessibility. Stopping the problem at source is the best way to prevent your legacy PDF problem from getting worse.

It’s possible to create accessible PDFs. The level of accessibility you can reasonably achieve depends on the source document the PDF is created from, and the tools you use to create it.

Source documents created in Microsoft Word or PowerPoint offer good accessibility when converted into PDF. Although the specifications for creating PDFs are ISO standards, Adobe Acrobat is still the only tool capable of producing really accessible PDF files.

The latest specification to join the set is ISO 14289 PDF UA (Universal Accessibility). It’s due to be released later this year, and will become the standard for creating accessible PDF files.

Do a little spring cleaning

If you have thousands of PDFs in your collection, the chances are that many are lying forgotten and out of date in the recesses of your website. Throwing out all those PDFs that are no longer relevant will help make the task ahead of you more manageable.

At the same time, make a note of all those PDFs that are due to be replaced in the near future. With step 1 in place, the new PDFs should be accessible, so it’s reasonable to eliminate the old ones from the collection you need to make accessible.

Prioritise your PDF collection

Take a look at your analytics or any other data that will tell you which of your remaining PDFs are downloaded most regularly. These are the ones you want to tackle first.

At this point you’ll need to begin making this subset of your PDF collection accessible. There will still be plenty of work to do to make this happen, but you’ll be focusing your energies on the PDFs that appeal to the majority of people visiting your website.

Manage the rest of your PDF collection

Meanwhile, wherever you have an inaccessible PDF on your website, include a short message that lets people know they can contact you if they’re having trouble with the file. When someone gets in touch, it’s a good opportunity to move the PDF in question up the priority list and make it accessible. Depending on how long you think that might take, you’ll also want to look at ways of providing the information in an alternative format for the person who contacted you.

This is a very high level strategy of course. You’ll need to adapt it based on the size of your PDF collection, the people and resources you have available, and the skills you have in-house. Think of it as a knife and fork strategy. Enjoy your elephant!

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  1. Yves Hudon says:

    Thanks Léonie for this Great article!

    You picked the right words up to summarize almost all my mind about this issue. I am thankful. Your article will be very useful for me.

    May I suggest that a good concern to add to this high-level strategy could be the following:
    Is a PDF contain really mandatory and without any other avenue, instead of publishing it using HTML format?

    I understand that many content in PDF format, not all, could be better and easier published in HTML format.

    Don’t you think so?


    Yves Hudon
    Québec, Canada
    Twitter : @YvesHudon

  2. Kiran Kaja says:

    Excellent points. A few more tips from my side:
    1. Try to identify individuals/departments/sections within your organisations who are creating PDFs and look at their processes (if any). Often, giving them an accessible template to use in Word/Open Office will make sure that new PDFs are created accessibly.
    2. If your organisation is generating PDFs automatically, you may have to look into the system that generates these PDFs. There are a lot of tools which can automatically generate PDFs and only a very few of these can generate accessible (tagged) PDFs.

  3. Thanks Léonie,

    We had the same problem a few years ago at Bracknell Forest Council – with thousands of inaccessible PDFs. We took the approach that you suggested. It was a hard slog initially to get on top of it, but now its a a task that is easily managed. Yes, a few slip through, but we run external monitoring and they are soon picked up each month.

    Your article offers some great advice and I’ll certainly find out more about the forthcoming standard for PDFs. Many thanks, Colin Stenning

  4. Andrew Arch says:

    Thanks Léonie,

    Your strategy mirrors our own advice pretty much – draw a line in the sand and make sure the new ones are accessible while prioritising which older ones should be upgraded and being responsive to requests.

    Two additional resources that may help people are:
    1. ADOD Project –
    2. WCAG 2.0 PDF Techniques –

    Yves’ point about first considering if PDF is the best format is also important.

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