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Considering Acrobat 9 accessibility

Learn how to use the tools in Acrobat 9 to evaluate the accessibility status of existing content and make content accessible.

By May 28, 2009


All federal government web content—including PDF files—has been accessible to persons with disabilities, such as vision and mobility impairments, for numerous years. Many organizations and businesses have followed suit. Acrobat 9 offers features for creating accessible content and evaluating existing PDF content for accessibility.

Acrobat 9 includes a number of tools for evaluating the accessibility status of existing content, making content accessible and optimizing accessible PDF files (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Acrobat 9 includes multiple tools for managing accessibility.

Rather than describing the basic processes for applying or evaluating accessibility, I’ll look at other considerations and features involved in making accessible content, such as working with tags, tables and forms.

Accessibility starts with tags

Tags allow Acrobat to manipulate the document and its contents in a variety of ways. Tags are a part of the document’s metadata and define relationships among elements, such as text, images, lists and tables.

Note: A tagged document isn’t the same as one containing a structure, such as this article. I’ve used a hierarchy of headings to define a flow for the pages, which isn’t as complete as a tagged file.

Tags may be applied in some source programs, such as InDesign or Word (using a PDFMaker), or in Acrobat using the Advanced > Accessibility > Add Tags to Document command. In Acrobat, view the tag hierarchy in the Tags panel.

Regardless of the source of a document’s tags, you may not have the clear, simple tagging structure you see in Figure 2. In this example, you see the Table of Contents items tagged in a tree structure. Each item includes a label, title, and a linked page, wrapped in a Table of Contents Item (TOCI) tag.

Figure 2: Tags define the Table of Contents elements.

Changing tag properties

Simply tagging a document doesn’t produce a finished product, although the tags may be technically accurate. If you’re comfortable using tags, select the tag in the tag tree, click it again to activate the text, and type your replacement tag.

The Tags panel’s menu contains a variety of commands to configure or modify the tag tree. Figure 3 shows several tags from a file converted to PDF from a source Word document.

Figure 3: Evaluate the page for tagging issues.

Looking at the tags, you’ll see that:

  • The Heading 2 tag has no associated content as the source document used an extra line with the style attached for layout purposes
  • Another blank line has been added, again for layout purposes
  • The paragraphs use a tag based on the style identified in the source document rather than using the proper container


Select the tag in the Tags panel, and use the keyboard or commands from either the Options menu or the shortcut menu to modify the tags for accessible use. In the finished product, although the spacing remains on the page, a screen reader wouldn’t read the blank heading or paragraph.

Note: The paragraphs use the style imported from the source Word document’s style. Acrobat uses the class, attributes and document role associated with a paragraph, as you can see by opening the Class Map and Role Maps, available via the Options menu commands.

Reorder tags or remove them altogether in the Tags panel. In the next example, the source file’s headings used numbering, converted to a set of list tags (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Correct tags in the panel.

In the example shown in Figure 4, the parent tag, Chapter 1, includes the tag as a child. Click and drag a tag’s label in the panel to modify the hierarchy as desired (Figure 5). You’ll see a horizontal line indicating the location for the tag, and can reorder the tag and promote or demote its dependency. Once you’ve got the tags reordered, you can delete the superfluous list tags.

Figure 5: Reorder and delete tags as necessary.

Tip: If you want to keep the content visible, but not captured by a screen reader, change it to an artifact. Select the content in the tag tree, and choose Change Tag to Artifact from the shortcut or Options menu.

Handling tables

How many times have you tried to evaluate data in a multi-page table without the benefit of column headers? Or found yourself scrolling continuously to identify the meaning of a cell’s contents? Contrast that with a simple table presented on a page with clearly defined elements, such as Table 1.





A structured layout of cells arranged in horizontal rows and vertical columns. Container tag for other table-related tags.

Table Row

One horizontal row in a table consisting of headings or data. Child of the parent


Table Data Cell

A cell containing data (excluding header content); child to the

Table Header Cell

A cell containing header text or other content describing rows or columns in a table; child to the


An optional element describing the table included as either the first or last child element of the


Table 1: Tables may contain several elements.

Tables and forms are especially challenging for assistive devices based on their structures. When you’re designing the table, keep in mind that simple rules identifying table cells are easiest to tag. Multi-stroke or 3D borders define each stroke of each cell as separate objects and are time-consuming to repair. Also, incorrect tagging may result in tables using white space to define cells rather than rules.

Merged cells in a table can cause errors, too. You won’t find a separate tag for either merged columns or rows, but you can check the tag attributes (Figure 6).

Figure 6: View attributes for merged cells.

Select the tag you want to check, and choose Properties from the Options menu to display the Tags tab of the TouchUp Properties dialog box. Click Edit Attribute Properties to display the Attribute Objects dialog box, and expand the listed Attributes to find the ColSpan and/or RowSpan attributes. In the example, the value for the /RowSpan attribute shows a value of "4," which correctly describes the selected cell.

Making forms accessible

Forms are handled differently from regular documents so that a screen reader or other device can recognize the fields. If you base a form on a table, the previous cautions for tables apply.

Tag fields in your source file or in Acrobat. Here are some features to include in your next accessible form:

  • Label the form fields
  • Add descriptions as necessary
  • Use text fields or rules to define form fields
  • List alternate text for the fields

Testing form tab order and functions

Be sure a user can move through a form logically using the keyboard. Establish the tabbing order in Acrobat Pro 9 via the Pages panel or using the Form window for forms created in Acrobat (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Test the tab order.

Choose the most sensible tabbing option for your form:

  • Use Row Order to move left to right across the page
  • Use Column Order to move through the columns from left to right and top to bottom
  • Use Document Structure to move the tab in the order specified in the document

Most of us are familiar with tabbing through a form or page from field to field. Each time you press TAB, focus shifts to the next active field, generally following a left to right, top to bottom pattern.

As part of preparing your form for distribution, be sure to test the form fields’ functions, as well as the overall form’s tab order. Use these keystrokes:

  • Press the TAB key to move the focus to the next field
  • Press SHIFT+TAB to move focus to the previous field
  • Press the SPACEBAR to move through a field’s options
  • Press the arrow keys to select items on lists, radio buttons, and check box form fields

Undoubtedly, preparing accessible content can extend much further than it may seem initially. You can customize and include numerous items that make a document simpler to understand and process by more users and more devices—which is the whole point of accessible materials.

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