From project proposals, to instructional materials, to recruiting resources, PDF documents are plentiful across the ATE Community. It’s vital to ensure that the documents we produce are accessible to as many users as possible. This not only helps widen our reach, but can even improve the experience for users without disabilities. The AccessATE/NCAM tip sheet covers a variety of ways to make PDFs accessible, and we will provide additional recommendations here.
Tip Sheet: Creating Accessible PDFs
The tip sheet briefly mentions the importance of color contrast, but color choice is equally important. This is because while the contrast ratio of your colors might technically meet the WCAG requirements, some colors become “noisy” or otherwise unpleasant or difficult to look at when paired together – the Minimum Contrast section of this article provides excellent examples of good and bad color choices that still fulfill the contrast ratio. Generally speaking, it is best to avoid colors that are especially bright, vibrant, or saturated, or colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel, e.g., red and green (known as “complimentary colors”). Palettes that feature such colors, or even just too many colors, can be distracting and difficult to look at, especially for readers with disabilities like autism and dyslexia. This is also true of text over images and watermarks – see Resources below for more on that. In all cases, the best practice for your document design in terms of readability and accessibility is a high-contrast palette with simple or limited colors.
Academia is plagued with low-quality scans; we’ve likely all received a copy of a scanned page that was difficult to read on at least one occasion! While the intention of scanning a page from a textbook, magazine, periodical, existing print-out, etc., for larger physical or digital distribution is fine (assuming there are no copyright or licensing issues), the scan itself needs to be of sufficient quality to be worthwhile. Before scanning something, ask: is a scan necessary at all? Does a digital version already exist? Always do a bit of research first. If a scan must be made, make sure you are not scanning a page that has any marks on it – no hand-written notes, highlighting, underlining, stains, etc. The page(s) you scan must already be clear and high-quality. The copy will never look quite as good as the original, so you must start with a page that is already in very good condition. Opt for the highest-quality scanner you have access to, and try to scan the page as flat as possible. Any kind of curve or fold – from the area near the spine of a book, or example – will create shadows that can obscure the text. Ideally, the page would have only one column of text, as multiple columns on a scanned page can sometimes be difficult for screen readers to parse.
Finally, let’s touch on braille. You may need to provide a physical braille copy of a document upon request. There are a variety of services that provide braille transcription – you may even have such a service at your own institution as part of their disability services. If not, there are a few services in the Resources section below. Some blind users have a braille display to use with their screen reader, so it’s best to ensure that your digital documents are compatible with those as well. Fortunately, accounting for braille readers is just like accounting for screen readers. Make sure to utilize styles, as mentioned in the tip sheet, to make navigation and organization easier. The tip sheet briefly mentions tables; for both braille and screen readers, and for accessibility in general, tables should be as simple as possible, with no nested rows/columns, and made using your document editor’s table tool. Similarly, all lists should be made with the bulleted or numbered list tools. Finally, remember to provide brief, meaningful alternative text for all images.
- University of Washington’s recommendations for creating high quality scans and accessible documents in Word
- This poster series by the UK Home Office has a lot of quick, great tips for designing with a variety of disabilities in mind. These are great for documents as well as designing webpages!
- WebAIM’s article on understanding color contrast and accessibility requirements provides a detailed look at the WCAG 2 requirements, with plenty of examples. Once you understand the color ratio requirements, Session College of Design’s color wheel tool is a great option for quickly putting together a color palette – you simply select a color you want to use, then the type of color harmony you’d like the other color(s) to have, and it will automatically select the additional color(s) for you. The article below the tool goes into additional detail about the color wheel and color harmonies. Additionally, this article from Essential Accessibility discusses text over images, which is also helpful for watermarks in documents and on webpages.
- Google has published steps on turning on braille support in Google Docs, and the University of Montana’s Rural Institute provides tips for accounting for braille in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. If you need to print a physical braille copy of a document and your institution does not have a resource to do so, services like BrailleWorks and the Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation (CIDI)
Remember that when it comes to designing accessible PDFs, simpler is often better. Maintain a simple color palette and font set, keep your lists, tables, and general layout plain. Let the tools in your document editor do the work for you. This not only improves the experience for your audience, but will make your work easier to do in the long-run. Happy documenting, and stay tuned to AccessATE for more tips!