Create accessible PDFs


For a quick overview of creating properly structured documents using different versions of Word, explore Microsoft Word on

For more comprehensive coverage of how to create properly structured Word documents and PDFs, explore the Word-to-PDF and PDF Accessibility Guide (PDF). The Guide:

  • Covers creating structured documents in Word and creating structured PDFs using Adobe Acrobat
  • Provides checklists for reviewing Word document and PDF accessibility
  • Was written to Word for Windows 2016 but most information remains applicable in Word 365 (Windows & Mac); see the WebAIM resource linked above for coverage of the few differences in Word 365 (notably: alt text and table headers)

The Challenge

People who use screen reading software rely on it to "read" text out loud to them. However, many documents posted on the Web are either completely inaccessible or just very frustrating for screen reader users.

A common and vexing problem is when documents are scanned and posted on the Web as a PDF. A scanned document is actually a photographic image, which the screen reader can't read. Essentially the scanned document is a blank slate.

Another problem occurs when a Word document has been converted to PDF but does not contain structure, such as headings, alternative text for images, and lists. This formal document structure enables a screen reader user to do such things as scan the document, navigate to certain sections, interpret images, and access Web links. Without document structure, a screen reader user may be faced with listening to many pages of text to find one pertinent paragraph and may not even be able to access much of the material, including images and charts. The key to creating an accessible PDF is to take the appropriate steps to build in structure when creating the source document and before converting it into a PDF file.


Question whether it is necessary to post a PDF or Word document; in many cases, an HTML page will serve the same purpose(s) and be easier to make accessible.

Never post a scanned file. These are images; screen readers can't access them. If you only have the scanned file and no source document, use Adobe Acrobat's OCR Text Recognition feature to clean up the document and convert it into a PDF with text that's accessible to screen readers (although it won't contain document structure).

Ensure that Word files are created with embedded structure before they are posted on the Web or converted to PDF. Such formal structure benefits everyone, not only screen reader users. Structured documents are more searchable and navigable; upon conversion to PDF, structured documents automatically generate bookmarks, which can serve as a table of contents.

Explore the resources shared at the top of this page for guidance on creating Word documents and PDFs that have the proper embedded structure.