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508 Compliance for PDF Documents

This is a follow up to my previous post 508 Compliance for Word Documents. If you’re unfamiliar with Section 508 or want to learn more, check out my post Intro to Section 508 and Accessibility. In this post, I will cover how to convert a prepared Word document to a PDF and how to adjust the properties and structure so that users of all abilities are able to navigate and read the document.

Many properties from a Word document are transferred to the PDF during the conversion process, including metadata, bookmarks, alternative text for images, heading levels, and comments. With that in mind, it’s almost always easier to update the source document rather than the converted document and many of the steps below can be completed before converting.  Before converting a document to a PDF, follow the steps in my previous post so that minimal adjustments will be required to ensure accessibility on the PDF document.

For this tutorial, I am using Adobe Acrobat Pro DC. Acrobat is not the same program as Adobe Reader, which allows you to view but not create PDFs. Acrobat is offered in Standard and Pro versions. Each version allows you to create PDFs and provide editing tools like markup and comments. For more advanced editing you will need the Pro version. See a comparison. Also keep in mind there are more affordable Acrobat alternatives, but they may have limited capabilities and features.

Converting to a PDF Document

If you don’t already have a PDF document to work with, you’ll first need to first create one. Starting from a blank page isn’t an option. You will have to convert one from an existing document, scan, clipboard, or web page.  The most common method is converting from a Word document.

Acrobat will integrate with most Microsoft products, including Microsoft Word and Excel and on installing will place Acrobat features within these programs.

Acrobat tab in Word
Figure 1 – Acrobat tab in Word

Option 1 – This is the simplest way to create a PDF. Open Microsoft Word, then open the file you wish to convert. Click on the Acrobat tab in the menu bar and choose ‘Create PDF’. Select where to save the PDF and click on ‘Save’.

Option 2 – This option gives you more control over the PDF features. Open the file you wish to convert. Click File > Print, and select Adobe Acrobat from the list of printers. Click print, and you will be prompted to confirm the location and file name of the PDF.  

Now you have a PDF document which you can continue with making accessible and Section 508 compliant.

Properties and Structure

Scanned Pages

It is recommended to avoid including any scanned pages as this results in an image of text that cannot be read by a screen reader and creates a larger file size. If possible, provide pure text rather than a scan. However, if your PDF has scanned pages, you can apply Optical Character Recognition (OCR) which will analyze images for text to allow screen readers to read text. 

To run a scan, go to Tools > Scan & OCR > Recognize Text, then select ‘In this File’. Select ‘Recognize Text’ button.

To review the efficiency of the scan, under Recognize Text, select ‘Correct Recognized Text’.  You will be taken to each item in the document that is suspected to not have been interpreted correctly and have a chance to correct any mistakes.

It is essential to perform OCR before adding tags (step below) as OCR will overwrite tags.

Hidden Content and Comments

During the review process hidden content and comments may be added to PDF documents. These items should be removed prior to publishing. To remove these items:

  1. In Tools menu under Protect select ‘Remove hidden information’
  2. Let scan run
  3. Expand menu to see all items
  4. Unselect metadata, bookmarks and any other items to keep
  5. Click ‘Remove’

Document Properties

To view/edit properties in Acrobat click on “File”, then “Properties”, or the shortcut Ctrl D.

Under Description tab – Fill out title, author, and subject

Initial View:

  • Layout and Magnification > Page Layout, select ‘Single Page’
  • Window Options > Show > Select ‘Document Title’


  • Reading Options > Language, select ‘English’.

Accessibility Tags

Accessibility tags are critical for assistive technology to read a document. When converting a document, tags should transfer to the PDF if the source document was tagged. However, do not assume tags will automatically transfer.

To check for accessibility tags, view the document properties from File > Properties or Ctrl-D.

If the document has accessibility tags, they will be displayed under the Description Tab. Tagged PDF: Yes

If ‘Yes’ is displayed, click OK’ to close Document Properties. You don’t need to add tags.

If ‘No’ is displayed, you must insert tags. Under Tools > Accessibility, select ‘Autotag Document’ which will add tags to the document. The Add Tags Report appears in the navigation pane if there are any issues. The report lists potential problems by page, provides a navigational link to each problem, and provides suggestions for fixing them.


All pictures, graphics, charts, or illustrations that convey meaning are required to contain the alternative (alt) text attribute which will be read aloud by screen readers. Background images and decorative images without meaningful content should not have any alternative text.

To add alternative text:


  1. Click on the Reading Order Tool to view tags in document.
  2. Click once on the number shown on the image you want to add alt text to
  3. Right click on the image’s tag
  4. Select ‘Edit Alternate Text’
  5. A dialog box will be displayed; enter descriptive text into the Alternate Text box.
  6. Click on “OK” to complete the change.

Option 2:

  1. In Tools bar search for Alternate Text tool
  2. Select ‘Set Alternate Text’
  3. A dialog box will appear for the first image in the document
  4. Enter descriptive text into the Alternate Text box
  5. Use right arrow to navigate to next image
  6. When completed, select ‘Save & Close’

Best Practices

  • Group multiple associated images on the same page as one object (e.g., boxes in an organization chart).
  • Flatten all multi-layered objects into one image with one alt tag.
  • You can achieve this using the Reading Order Tool. Once tool is active, click and drag curser over the area you want selected, then mark it as an image.

For example, a bar chart that conveys information would have alt text that may read something like this:

Bar chart that indicates the number of DEA drug laboratory cleanups per fiscal year for 2003 through 2008. The value for each year is as follows:  2003 – 8,631; 2004 – 9,825; 2005 – 11,790; 2006 – 4,744; 2007 – 3,405; 2008 – 3,866.


Active hyperlinks set in Word will transfer as active links in the PDF. Test hyperlinks to ensure the link is going to the intended web page. If hyperlinks are not active or need to be changed, follow the instructions below.

To insert a hyperlink into a PDF document:

  1. In Tools bar search for ‘Link’
  2. Select ‘Link’ then ‘Add/Edit Web or Document Link’
  3. A set of “cross hairs”, which resembles a “+” sign, will be displayed in the window. Highlight the text to be linked to display a Create Link dialog box.
  4. Select “Open a web page” in the “Link Action” section of the dialog box.
  5. Click the “Next” button to display another dialog box requesting the link.
  6. Enter the link. It is best to copy and paste the hyperlink directly from the Internet page to avoid making mistakes.
  7. Click “OK”.


Tables converted from Microsoft Word may need to have the associated tags and cells edited.  Tag column and row headers to associate the data cells with the corresponding column and row heading cells, and order the table so it reads from left to right, top to bottom.

To view/edit table cells:

  • Navigate to the table in the PDF
  • Click on “Reading Order” under Tools
  • From the table, click once on the number in the top left corner
  • Right click on number and choose “Table Editor” (or other option – Click on “Table Editor” in the “Touch Up Reading Order” dialog box)
  • Identify cells with a TD or a TH. See figure 2 below.
    • Change all header cells as TH (with scope of row, column or both)
    • Change all regular data cells as TD
Figure 2 – View of table in editor mode
  • Edit cells as needed – right click on the cell and choose “Table Cell Properties”, then choose either “Data Cell” or “Header Cell” (with scope of row, column or both)

View/edit tags in Tags Panel:

  • To bring up tags panel, go to left side icons and select tags icon
  • Find the table in the tags panel by selecting part of the table, and from the drop down in the tags panel choose Options > Find Tag from Selection
  • Display table tag details by clicking on the “+” to expand the lower-level objects of the table.
  • Right click on each tag to bring up more info
  • You may need to create new elements, change types of elements, or rearrange existing elements

Reading Order

To check:

  • Click on “Reading Order” under Tools
  • Numbered blocks identify sections of content
    • Screen readers will read the sections in numerical order.
    • Check the logical order so it reads from top to bottom, left to right. If not, continue to edit:

To edit:

  • In “Reading Order” box, click on “Show Order Panel”
  • Click once on box that needs to be reordered. That section will then be highlighted in the order panel box.
  • Click on section and drag to correct spot. For best results, only drag sections down, not up.
  • Numbers and reading order should update on document.


Bookmarks are a collection of direct links to content within the document. They provide users with a means of navigating the document. Any PDF document over 9 pages should have bookmarks included.  Bookmarks may be displayed by clicking on the bookmark icon on the left menu bar, or from the top menu: View > Show/Hide >Navigation Panes > Bookmarks.

You can add bookmarks using several options via the icons shown circled in figure below. It is best to have the links go to the main headings within the document. 

Figure 3 – Example of Bookmarks and options for adding

File Size

Reducing the size of a PDF file will make it download faster. If the file size has already been reduced it will be indicated in the “Document Properties” window. In the lower right corner of the window “Fast Web Viewing” will show as “Yes”.

To reduce the file size:

  1. Close Document Properties window.
  2. Under Tools/Optimize PDF, select “Reduce File Size”
  3. You will then be asked to save the file.
  4. You can also use ‘Advanced Optimization’ which gives more options. Recommended to only check ‘Images’ and ‘Clean Up’.

Accessibility Check

Once you feel you have the document ready, you need to run an accessibility report which will provide information and guidance on most issues.

To run an accessibility report:

  1. From the tools bar, search/select “Full Check”
  2. The checker will run then give you a report summary to the left.
  3. The issues identified link to the object(s) in your PDF document that need to be corrected.
  4. If you right click on the issue, there is an option for ‘Explain’ that will open a browser window with more information and guidance on how to repair it.

Tools and Shortcuts


You can save time and keystrokes by using an action—a defined series of commands with specific settings and in a specific order that you apply in a single step. Actions help streamline your work by performing routine tasks used to prepare files for distribution. You can add many of the tools and methods described above to a custom action. You can apply an action to a single document, to several documents, or to an entire collection of documents.

To access and manage actions click on Tools > Action Wizard.

To learn how to run an action, create a custom action, manage custom actions, and more visit: https://helpx.adobe.com/acrobat/using/action-wizard-acrobat-pro.html

Figure 4 below shows a custom action I created.  For each action that shows an OK box icon, you can apply more settings by clicking on ‘Specify Settings’.  In the example below for ‘Add Document Description’ you can specify title, subject, author, and/or keywords.

Figure 4 – Example of Bookmarks and options for adding

Quick Tools

Speed up processes even more by adding tool shortcuts to your menu bar, such as actions, reading order, and accessibility checker. To add shortcuts, right click on menu bar and select customize quick tools. Choose your tools and use the arrow icon to move them to your menu bar.

Figure 5 – Menu Bar Shortcuts

Resources and Further Reading

This post was written by Fawn Kildoo

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