PDF documents: the Bane of my existence

Although I should not have an adverse opinion on any technology, there is nothing I loathe more than seeing a PDF document arrive in my inbox. There’s that tense minute where I click on it and wonder, will it open correctly? Will my screen reader actually be able to read it? Will I be able to navigate its content? Is it full of scanned images? For the amount of testing I’ve done on PDF documents in order to guarantee their accessibility, I find the PDF format to be quite frustrating when it comes down to accessing information. Having said that, despite its accessibility drawbacks, I am encountering them more and more in my professional life. Here are a few ways in tackling them in order to get to their content in an accessible fashion.


First things first, make sure you have the latest version of Adobe Reader. Each new version does improve on accessibility, so it’s a really good idea to keep up-to-date. You can easily update this program by going to the ninite service, choosing the Adobe Reader option and downloading the setup. The ninite service is found here. You can read more on this service by going to my blog entry on the topic: Configuring A New PC IS A Drag.


Reading a PDF document in Adobe Reader will ensure quicker navigation; such as headings, links, lists, tables and the like. That’s if the document author has followed accessibility standards and properly tagged the document. You will know if they didn’t if Adobe comes up with the warning, “This is an untagged document, infer reading order from the content?”. Pressing ENTER at this point will make Adobe Reader figure out the document layout, but you will not get any navigation capabilities. In other words, you’ll be able to read the document from top to bottom, but you won’t be able to move from heading to heading, since there will not be any generated.


But, if all you’re concerned about is content, I would suggest going into the Adobe Reader file menu by pressing ALT+F and then going down to “Save As”. You can then choose “Save As Text”. The benefit is you get a text dump of the document which you can read with your favourite text editor, such as Notepad.


There is however, a point of no return when it comes to reading a PDF document. There is a way to create a PDF document from scanned images. In other words, the document contains no text whatsoever. You will know that this has happened if you try to open a document and Adobe Reader notifies you that the document is empty. This is where you start stomping your feet in frustration and cursing under your breath. You can contact the sender and ask for an alternative document format, or you can use a scanning program such as Kurzweil or Openbook in order to scan this document in a readable format. Screen readers such as JAWS and NVDA have facilities to scan images on the fly, but it’s definitely not the solution to our accessibility woes.


Don’t want to use Adobe Reader? You don’t have to. There is a fully accessible text editor called EdSharp. You can find more info here: EdSharp Info. And here is a direct download link for the program itself: EdSharp Direct Download. Once installed, run the program and press CONTROL+SHIFT+O. This will open a file dialog where you can choose the PDF which you would like to read. It will be converted into text and loaded up into EdSharp for your reading pleasure.


Well, that’s my rant for today. If, by any chance a PDF author is reading this and would like to know more on PDF accessibility, you can access a guide by following this link. Creating Accessible Adobe® PDF Files.

You can also Google, “PDF accessibility” to find a treasure trove of material.

About mcourcel

I work within the Information Technology industry. More precisely, within the accessibility field. Oddly enough, I'm trying out WordPress to evaluate its ease of use and just to tinker with various topics of my choosing.
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