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Creating an accessible PDF

Before you start

Short pieces of content should be published as web pages if:

  • they meet a clear user need
  • users need to read them to access a service
  • they're between 1 and 5 pages long

Content must follow the Government Digital Service (GDS) content standards.

For longer pieces of content, you can use a pdf if there is a user need. But you need to ensure it meets accessibility standards so everyone can access it including people that use assistive technologies.

Make your original document accessible

To create an accessible PDF, you need to make your original document accessible before converting it.

Most PDFs start off as Word documents. Here’s guidance to make your Word document accessible.

You can also apply the same accessibility features to other formats like Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint slides.

Keep it simple and clear

Use simple language that people can read and understand quickly.

Writing in plain English and using short sentences makes your document accessible to people with cognitive impairments and learning disabilities.

Professionals need content in plain English too. They need to be able to find information quickly.

See our guidance on writing accessible content.

Heading styles

It’s important to use headings that are styled and structured properly. This helps people using screen readers to:

  • understand how your document is organised and navigate between the headings
  • jump through the list of headings to skip to the content they’re looking for

Applying the correct heading level style means your document’s structure follows a logical order.

Use Heading 1 for your title. Your document should only have one heading 1.

Heading 2 is the main subheading and should always be after Heading 1.

Heading 3 is a sub-section of the content under a Heading 2.

Heading 4 is a sub-section of the content under a Heading 3.

The heading structure should look like this:

Heading 1

Heading 2

Heading 3

Heading 4

Always use heading styles in this order. If you miss a Heading 2 and only use Heading 3 and Heading 4, then a screen reader will see the page as missing a Heading 2.

Don’t use bold formatting to identify headings as screen readers won’t recognise this..

Write descriptive headings. Include keywords that users are looking for. See our guidance on optimising content for search.

Microsoft has guidance on adding headings and subheadings.

Formatting and layout

Format your document well so people with low vision, cognitive or learning difficulties can access and read your document easily and quickly.

Use left justification for text and not fully justified.

Use the same font throughout, like Arial, and use text size of 12 point or higher.

White space makes information easier to read. Make sure there’s sufficient space between paragraphs and at either side of the page.

Use the paragraph sign (¶) to make sure there are no extra returns and other formatting.

Use sentence case. Don’t use capital letters as this is hard to read.

Don’t use text formatting such as italics and bold.

Don’t use underlining, except for links.

Bulleted or numbered lists

Large blocks of text are hard to read. Use bulleted lists to break them up and make them easier to read and follow.

Use numbered lists if you are guiding the user through a process.

They help screen reader users to identify lists in a document, navigate to them, and get information quickly.

For screen readers to identify lists in a document correctly, you must add lists using the built-in list formatting in Word.

Use a bulleted list for unordered lists. For example:

Adding a bulleted list properly means people using screen readers know:

  • where the list starts and ends
  • how many items are listed
  • what list item the user is on

Use a numbered list if you are telling the user to follow a process. Each step ends in a full stop because each step should be a complete sentence. For example:

This is how to add a numbered list.

  1. Place the cursor in the appropriate place in your document.
  2. Go to the ‘Home’ ribbon tab.
  3. In the Paragraph section, select the Numbering button.
  4. Type the steps in your process.

Microsoft has guidance on how to add bulleted and numbered lists.

All links within a document should have an appropriate link text. Use a meaningful and descriptive link text to help people using screen readers to identify what they are.

For example, use Essex County Council instead of https://www.essex.gov.uk/Pages/Default.aspx. Screen readers will read out the full web address and it won't make sense to the user.

Don’t use ‘click here’ as your link text. People with visual impairment can tell their screen readers to pick out only links in a document. If your document uses a lot of ‘click here’, then that is all the user will hear and it won’t make sense to them.

Read our guidance on formatting links.

GOV.UK has guidance on writing link text.

Alternative text (alt text) for images

Images should have descriptive alt text that describes the meaning of an image. Keep the alt text brief but concise.

Screen readers will read out the alt text and it helps people with visual impairments understand pictures they can’t see.

See our guidance on using images.

Microsoft has guidance on adding alt text to images.

You can also watch their video on improving accessibility with alt text.

Charts and graphs

Charts and graphs must have a text description in the body text and alt text.

Add labels to your charts and graphs to help colour blind users identify what they represent.

If you have to use colours in your charts, use different line styles, text in graphs or different shades of colour to improve accessibility for colour blind users.

See our guidance on using charts and graphs as images.

Watch Microsoft’s video on creating accessible charts in Excel. You can create accessible Excel charts in Word, and you can also apply the same accessibility features.

Diagrams and inserted objects

Add objects, such as pictures, shapes, SmartArt graphics, as single images and not as separate component parts.

Add alt text to objects to help people with visual impairments understand what they mean.

Microsoft has adding alternative text to objects.


Use tables to present data only. Don’t use tables for cosmetic changes to layout. There are other ways to present information such as using:

  • headings and subheadings
  • bulleted lists

If you have to use tables, keep them simple and make them accessible.

Don’t use merged or split cells. Separate more complex tables and use headings for each one.

Tables must have a header row that tells you what’s in the columns. Put the data in the cells below.

Screen readers need to be able to identify which cells are part of the header row and which cells contain data.

Check that the tabbing order is correct and is in a logical order.

Alternative text (alt text) for tables

Add alt text to your table. Screen readers will read this information and it will help users to understand what content is in the table.

You can add alternative text using the ‘Table properties’.

GOV.UK also has guidance on how to make tables accessible.

Watch Microsoft’s video on creating accessible tables in Word.

Colour contrast

Don’t use colours as your only means of giving information because people who are blind, colour blind or have low vision can miss this.

For example, using colours such as red and green to indicate that things are right or wrong won’t make sense to people with visual impairments. Use descriptive text or heading to give more information to users.

Make sure you have good contrast between text and background so the user can read the text.

Microsoft has guidance on using accessible text colour and accessible text format.

If there are shaded cells or table headers, you need to check that the contrast is enough using a Colour Contrast Checker.

Document properties

Add document properties, known as metadata, to your document. This includes the document title, author, subject, keyword and language.

Screen readers read out the document properties to identify content in documents.

Use the full title of the document.

Always use Essex County Council as the author.

Add the main keywords.

Here’s an example:

This is what document properties look like in Word

Microsoft has guidance on adding document properties.

Check your document for accessibility

You can check if your document is accessible while you’re working on it or before you convert it to a PDF.

You can use the Accessibility Checker feature available on most Microsoft Office products including Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

The Accessibility Checker will identify any issues in your document and suggest how you can fix them.

Microsoft has guidance on checking the accessibility of a Word document.

Converting to a PDF

After running the Accessibility Checker on your document, you can save it as an accessible PDF. This preserves the accessibility features of your original document.

Don’t print to PDF as your document will lose all the accessibility features.

Microsoft has guidance on saving an accessible PDF.

Checking and applying accessibility to PDF documents

If you don’t have the original document, you can still make your PDFs accessible, but to do this you will need an Adobe Acrobat Pro licence.

Adobe Acrobat has guidance on how to make PDFs accessible.

GOV.UK also has guidance on how to check a PDF for accessibility

Web Accessibility in mind (WebAIM) has guidance on creating accessible documents in Word.