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Creating Section 508 Compliant (Accessible) PDFs


Those of you who manage the proposal process understand the importance of ensuring that all of the requirements are met. Whether it is a $1 million job or a $1 billion mega-project, simple errors or omissions could result in the rejection of your submission and serious consequences in regard to your career.

Section 508 compliance is required on all documents submitted to a federal entity and many state and local governments have adopted these requirements, as well. Section 508 compliance, as it relates to this article, mandates that electronic documents are accessible to people with disabilities. If you are interested in the details, Wikipedia provides a good overview and history (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_508_Amendment_to_the_Rehabilitation_Act_of_1973).

I would be willing to wager that the vast majority of proposals that fall under Section 508 do not meet, or even come close to meeting, these requirements. I would also be willing to wager that most procurement departments do not thoroughly check for compliance. The real question is, “Would you be willing to wager your job that your client will not check for compliance?”

Knowing your client

Entities may vary on what they consider Section 508 compliance. You should get to know your client and ask for a clear definition of what they are looking for. Many entities have compliance guides and check lists to assist you in ensuring that your digital documents are accessible.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a great example of an entity that provides a clear definition, guides for various media, and checklists to ensure compliance. For this Tech Tip, I will use the VA as the basis of compliance.

The VA’s Checklist

VA checklist

To give you an idea of what it takes to be compliant, here are the checklist questions for the VA. I have added my comments in blue/parentheses.

1.0 Document Layout and Formatting Requirements

  • 1.1 Does the document contain the correct Document Property Tags? Do the tags reflect the document structure?
    (Easy to do if you use paragraph/character styles)
  • 1.2 Headers: If a designation such as bold and/or italicized text is used to denote headings, have the headings been properly tagged?
    (paragraph/character styles)
  • 1.3 Lists: Are bulleted, numbered and/or alphabetical lists properly tagged?
    (paragraph/character styles)
  • 1.4 Links: Are links properly tagged with a <Link> tag, a Link-OBJR tag, and a content tag?
    (Assigning links via the Hyperlinks pallet located in Window > Interactive > Hyperlinks and assigning specifying settings in the export dialog)
  • 1.5 Does the document have a logical reading order, i.e. is this tab order correct?
    (Keeping your text frames threaded, dragging content into the Articles pallet located in Window > Articles, arranging the order as you work, and making a quick preference change to the final PDF in Acrobat.)
  • 1.6 Does the document have the language specified in the Document Properties?
    (Quick change to the final PDF in Acrobat)
  • 1.7 If the document contains a Table of Contents (TOC) or Bookmarks are they functioning correctly?
    (Using InDesign’s automated table of contents, ensuring that you update the TOC prior to export, and that you select include bookmarks and hyperlinks in the export dialog)
  • 1.8 Do all URL’s contain the correct hyperlink and display the fully qualified URL i.e., http://www.va.gov and not http://www.va.gov?
    (Provide the fully qualified URL within the aforementioned hyperlinks pallet)
  • 1.9 Are all URL’s linked to the correct Web destinations?
    (Easiest to do from within InDesign using the aforementioned Hyperlinks pallet)
  • 1.10 Have comments been removed and formatting marks been turned off?
    (Acrobat’s sanitize document and remove hidden information function is a bad choice as it will remove hyperlinks. Your best bet is to manually check for document comments.)
  • 1.11 Has a full Accessibility Report been run on the document in Adobe Acrobat Professional 8 or higher showing no errors are present?
    (This should take less than a minute on documents of 100 pages or less.)
  • 1.12 Have documents with multi-column text, tables, or call-out boxes been checked for correct reading order using the Acrobat Pro ‘Read Aloud’ function? (Pay attention to this as it is one area that I have found to be difficult to determine from within InDesign.)
  • 1.13 Has a separate accessible version of the document been provided when there is no other way to make the content accessible? (Example: An organizational chart)
    (Alt text is the easiest way to handle this. You can place a narrative description of the illustration. If I am the only person working on the document, I create charts and illustrations directly in InDesign. If it is a collaborative workflow, I tend to do these illustrations in Illustrator. Either way you can apply alt text to a group of elements or a linked file. Just be sure not to ungroup or you will loose your description.)

2.0 Document Image Requirements

  • 2.1 Do all images, grouped images and non-text elements that convey information have alternative text descriptions?
    (Using the aforementioned Object Export Options)
  • 2.2 Is the document absent of scanned images of text?
    (Get the source document! Sometimes scanned text is unavoidable. Using alt text is the best work around.)
  • 2.3 Do complex images have descriptive text immediately after the image?
    (It is good practice to provide captions)
  • 2.4 Are multiple associated images on the same page (e.g., boxes in an organizational chart) grouped as one object?
    (Mentioned in 1.13)
  • 2.5 Have all multi-layered objects been flattened into one image and use one Alternative Text (Alt Tag) for this image?
    (Ive never had a problem with this. I guess if you had a collage of photos, you could group and add alt text.)
  • 2.6 Do decorative images that do not convey information have an empty Alternative Text (Alt Text) (i.e, alt=””)?
    (Decorative images on the master page can be easily tagged with alt text.)

3.0 Document Table Requirements

  • 3.1 Do all data tables in the document have Row and Column headers?
  • 3.2 Are tables being used to create a tabular structure (not tabs or spaces)?
  • 3.3 Do all data tables in the document have a logical reading order from left to right, top to bottom?
  • 3.4 Are data cells in the tables logically associated with the Row/Column Header Elements?
  • 3.5 Are all data tables in the document named, numbered (if applicable) and have a description?
  • 3.6 Are all table cells, with the exception of those associated with the Header Row, designated as data cells?

4.0 Additional Requirements

  • A Has a visual check been performed on the document to ensure that no hidden data from Word (or other applications used to create the original document) is present in the PDF file?
  • B Is the document file name concise, generally limited to 20-30 characters, and make the content of the file clear in the context in which it is presented?
  • C Does the document contain scanned signatures?
    (If I have the source or non-scanned version of the original unsigned document, I place it into the InDesign document and then place the signed portion over top of it.)
  • D Does the document utilize recommended fonts i.e. Times New Roman, Verdana, Arial, Tahoma, Calibri and Helvetica?
  • E Has a separate accessible version of the document been provided when there is no other way to make the content accessible? (Example: An organizational chart).
    (No need, see 1.13)

As this checklist illustrates, there is a lot work that goes into creating accessible documents. The key is working in the most efficient manor so that if you have to make changes to the source InDesign file, you will not loose all of your accessibility work.

Section 508 Workflow

In the past, creating accessible PDFs primarily required extensive work in Acrobat during post production. This work could only be done after the document was complete. If you needed to make edits to the original document, you would have to start from scratch.

Recently, Indesign has provided various tools which make this process far more efficient.

My favorite part is that if you already use InDesign how it is intended to be used (i.e., you use style sheets, automated table of contents, threaded text frames, no local edits, and no overset text to name a few), you are in luck and well on your way to accessibility!

Before writing this Tech Tip, I researched the topic to ensure I would provide the most up-to-date guide. I tend to put my own AEC specific guides together; however, Adobe published an InDesign CS6 white paper on the topic that is in my opinion, the guide to end all guides.

Adobe white paper section 508

Adobe’s accessibility page (http://www.adobe.com/accessibility/products/indesign/) has some excellent videos from CS5.5; however, they do not provide a link to the white paper. The document is available using the following URL (creating-accessible-pdf-documentw-with-adobe-indesign-cs6-v3.pdf). If Adobe breaks the link, send me an email and I will provide the document.

The white paper illustrates how to implement the following steps:


Required steps in InDesign CS6

  1. Use paragraph styles consistently throughout your document.
  2. Establish export tag relationships between InDesign styles and PDF tags.
  3. Anchor images within the content flow.
  4. Add alternative text for images.
  5. Incorporate internal document navigation mechanisms.
  6. Establish content order in the Articles panel.
  7. Specify a document title and description as metadata.
  8. Export as PDF with settings optimized for accessibility.


Required steps in Acrobat X Pro

  1. Set the language in Document Properties.
  2. Change display name from Filename to Document Title.
  3. Set the tab order to use the document structure in the Page Thumbnails pane.
  4. Run the Acrobat accessibility check.