Accesibility and PDFs

PDF (Portable Document Format) files are a handy way to share documents that can be viewed, printed, and shared while preserving the original’s format. Most PDFs are created using office tools such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office, publishing software such as Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress, or as images from scanned documents using network-connected copy and fax machines.

If you make PDFs available on your public website, these files must adhere to our web accessibility guidelines. Web accessibility has always been a requirement for UMaine websites, and Digital Communications is increasing our efforts to improve the accessibility of web content on

Should you use a PDF?
The first question for any document you are making available on your website is “should I add this as a PDF?” If you can avoid using PDF for a document, this is usually the best option. By taking text out of a PDF and adding it directly to a web page, you ensure that visitors finding this information via web search will see it in the context of your UMaine website. When content is only available within a PDF, Google will send a search visitor directly to that document, circumventing any site navigation as well as any additional information you provided around that content. If you are unsure if PDF is a good fit for a particular document, please contact us at and we will be happy to evaluate and discuss your options. In some cases, we may advise that you provide a web page-based version of your content alongside a PDF to accommodate accessibility needs.

How do I make a PDF accessible?
An accessible PDF has features that provide engagement tools for someone who relies on assistive technology: text is searchable, the document’s language is specified, and there are document structure tags with a logical reading order that allow a computer to help the reader navigate the file.

If you are making PDFs available on your website, you should be using the full, paid version of Adobe’s Acrobat software (at the time of this writing, that is Adobe Acrobat DC). This software includes tools that allow you to check a document for accessibility, and create the important tags that are needed for screen readers.

Our team here in Digital Communications has some experience working with PDF documents for web accessibility, but we are always looking to improve our understanding of these tools. In particular, the document tagging that is required for accessible PDFs can be cumbersome and confusing, even to seasoned users of Adobe Acrobat. If you have direct experience with these tools, we want to hear from you— if there is enough interest in this topic, we may create an Accessible PDF User Group across our campus so our peers can share expertise and improve capabilities together.