While PDF has long been the dominant format for downloadable online documents, and very easy to produce, the tagged PDF format is complex and can be difficult to get right.

There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Layout programs (for example InDesign and MS Word) will generally not export correctly tagged PDFs without extensive setup.
  • Even after the document text and formatting are correctly tagged by these programs, additional setup is required to ensure the text is exported in the correct reading order, particularly from InDesign.
  • The palette of tags exported by layout programs is limited to a selection of the most common tags; other tags must be applied manually in the exported PDF.
  • The tag editing interface in Adobe Acrobat is opaque and cumbersome.
  • If a late change is made in the source file and a new PDF is exported, all the postprocessing required in the PDF needs to be repeated; alternatively, affected pages can be replaced in the existing PDF, but even then some advanced tagging repairs are required.
  • Most guidelines on working with tagged PDFs exaggerate the scope and usefulness of the Adobe Accessibility Check function and the Touchup Reading Order (TURO) tool. As a result, many published PDFs that are thought (and/or claimed) by the publisher to be accessible are in fact not accessible. In some cases the tags are so badly set up that the tagged PDF is effectively unusable.

Workflows for producing tagged PDFs

There are two main workflow scenarios:

  1. The document has already been laid out and requires retrospective setup for tagged PDF export
  2. The documents is yet to be laid out and requires planned setup for tagged PDF export.

1. The document has already been laid out

Issues to consider:

  • It is possible but more time-consuming to set up a document retrospectively. In some cases, it will be more cost-effective to export the text to MS Word and/or HTML as the accessible file formats.
  • The first file you convert retrospectively has the potential to generate two spinoff benefits for your organisation:
    • a customised conversion checklist that may streamline other retrospective conversions (if you have additional documents that were originally set up in a similar way)
    • a new template and guidelines for the layout of future documents.
  • The setup may include editorial considerations, for example:
    • repair of flaws in the heading structure
    • determining the correct reading order for a complex layout (mostly applicable to some InDesign layouts)
    • addition of captions and alt text
    • conversion of explicit URLs to hyperlinked descriptive text.

2. The document is yet to be laid out

Issues to consider:

  • Structural and other editorial considerations can be addressed prior to layout.
  • Elements that will require extensive postprocessing in the tagged PDF can be identified and potentially treated in a different manner.
  • The first document laid out with the correct setup can serve as the starting point for a new template and for guidelines for the layout of future documents.

Our services

Our services relating to accessible tagged PDFs encompass all the areas we’ve touched on above.

We recognise that preparing an accessible PDF is not a one-size-fits-all ‘blackbox’-style service. The right approach for each document will depend on many factors, including:

  • the other formats in which the document will be made available
  • your corporate guidelines
  • the required degree of conformance with standards
  • the audience profile
  • cost considerations.

If your organisation has already developed detailed requirements for tagged PDFs, we can export files to your specifications. If you are not yet at that stage, we can discuss all the factors, and agree on how best to attain the required degree of conformance. If appropriate, we can also consider how to most efficiently produce future PDFs to the same standard.