Making portable documents accessible

The promotion of Adobe Acrobat as a de facto file format for document distribution centers on its twin virtues of virtually authentic format preservation and application-neutral, cross-platform compatibility.

What’s a virtue to one user, however, may be another’s vice.

While graphically rich publications with multi-column designs can retain their visual impact when converted to PDF, there’s a subset of the user community for whom this is not only unnecessary, but for whom it can even pose an obstacle to communication.

In Acrobat’s earliest days, groups representing the visually disabled were quick to raise the issue of accessibility — or more correctly as they perceived it, inaccessibility — of information published in PDF. Beginning as early as Acrobat v1.0, Adobe has been taking steps to address those concerns and to offer technological solutions, often working in tandem with user groups and companies with relevant expertise.

As new features and capabilities have been added with each successive version of Acrobat, the issue of accessibility is constantly being re-visited. Likewise, solutions need to be upgraded and expanded.

Along with the recent release of Acrobat Reader 4.05, and the forthcoming distribution of a free (to registered users) Acrobat 4.05 maintenance, Adobe is also now featuring enhancements to Access Adobe, its Web site addressing accessibility issues.

The changes, all which are detailed in an updated white paper ‘Optimizing Adobe PDF Files for Accessibility,’ 84 kb include:

  1. Enhancements to existing PDF conversion solutions
  2. Tips for optimizing PDF files for maximum accessibility
  3. A working demo of accessible PDF forms and statement of future plans

Conversion Solutions

The Access Adobe site has offered for some time several options for converting PDF files on the Internet to either text or HTML.

NOTE: Conversions done with this free service are intended for use by visually disabled users; this is not intended to be a general tool for converting PDF documents to text. It makes no attempt to preserve layout or graphics; it provides a text-only version that is suitable for use with screen reading programs. There are other commercial tools more suited to

sophisticated conversion from PDF to other file formats. PDF Store

To convert a PDF on the Internet, one can either use one of two Web-based forms on the Access Adobe site, or interact via email with the Adobe-based service or a similar one established at the Trace Research Center. In either case, one enters and submits a full URL pointing to a specific PDF file. If done via the Web forms — available in a simple or advanced format — the converted text appears inside the Web browser window. If the URL is submitted via email, the converted text will also be returned via an email message. Navigational links and bookmarks are preserved.

Among the recent modifications to the mail service is that multiple URLs can be sent in the same message, and PDF files on a local drive can also be sent as attached (MIME) files.

Another option — for Windows users only — is the Access 4.0 plug-in that works with the commercial Acrobat 4.x product and with the free Reader 4.x for Windows.

Free services:

Simple form:
Advanced form:
Conversion by email:
Acrobat Access 4.0 plug-in:

Optimization for Accessibility

Not to be confused with the optimization process used to create PDF files that can be byteserved for page-at-a-time downloading and viewing, the new white paper contains Adobe’s guidelines on ways document creators can assure maximum accessibility in their PDFs.

These include:

  • using Acrobat 4.x to re-convert original source files of PDFs created from old legacy documents, which improves performance with screen readers.
  • using Acrobat bookmarks, which offer an electronic table of contents to visually disabled users.
  • using PDFMaker 4.0 with Microsoft Word, which creates PDFs with ‘logical structure.’ In the future, this will improve document navigability and make it easier to determine right reading order, one of the challenges with existing tools.
  • creating ‘Image+Text’ or ‘Normal’ PDFs when using Acrobat Capture to convert paper documents.
  • preflighting your PDFs for specific types of content that may be inaccessible.

Demonstration and Future Plans

Currently PDF-based forms are not fully accessible, but it’s an area Adobe will be addressing in future releases. New to the Access Adobe site is a ‘technology demonstration’ of accessible PDF forms using Acrobat 4.05 or Reader 4.05 Windows. Several additional components must be downloaded and installed prior to running the PDF forms accessibility demonstration. For example, since this demo utilizes the JavaScript text-to-speech object (for rendering machine text as digitally
synthesized speech), users must have a Text-To-Speech engine installed. PDF forms can include documents titles and field descriptions that are read to the user, and sound or speech cues that indicate specific actions.

Demo and links to components:

Future developments related to more tools and methods for creating PDF files with logical document structure will lead to even greater accessibility, according to Adobe, along with simplified techniques for evaluating files for possible problems before distribution.

For an overview of accessible PDFs, see the Access Adobe FAQ at:

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About the Author: Kurt Foss

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