Accessible PDFs in Adobe Acrobat series (ep 2): Using the Accessibility Check Tool

Using Acrobat’s Accessibility Tools

Acrobat provides many helpful accessibility tools for ensuring your PDF will be as usable as possible. You can navigate the array of tools by activating “Accessibility” from the Task pane (if you don’t have “Accessibility” listed in your Task pane, please see our first post in this Acrobat series, “Accessible PDFs in Adobe Acrobat series: Intro and series overview”). Once a keyboard user clicks Enter on “Accessibility,” the focus will redirect back into the document so you’ll have to click F6 again to re-focus within the Tool panes. From there, you can Tab through the options.

Definitions list

  • Acrobat – referring to the full program Adobe Acrobat Pro DC
  • PDF – Portable Document Format
  • SEO – Search Engine Optimization
  • Ctrl+4 – Toggle reflow view

Setting Acrobat up for accessibility optimizations

The Acrobat “Accessibility” tool

For ease of access, I recommend getting Acrobat’s “Accessibility” tool set as a shortcut in your Task pane. If you already have the “Accessibility” tool shortcut in your Task pane or you don’t want it added, you can skip this step.

A screenshot of Acrobat's Tool shortcut pane with Accessibility highlighted next to a purple universal access icon

You can toggle your Task pane by clicking the chevron on the right-hand side of your screen or by using Shift+F4 on your keyboard. You can then navigate the Task pane either with your mouse, or by pressing F6 and tabbing through your options (F6 cycles through Acrobat’s Task pane, Document pane, Message pane, and Navigation pane. Screen reader users will know they’re within the Task pane when focused on a “Search tools” input). If the “Accessibility” tool is not available in your task pane, I recommend clicking on or tabbing to “More Tools,” which should be the very last option in your Task pane. Alternative method: You can click on “Tools” in the Document pane toolbar (or use F6 on your keyboard until you hear “Home” and click Tab until you hear “Tools,” which for me was only once, and press F6 to move focus into the Tools page).

This page has all of the Tools Acrobat provides within its software. You can scroll down to the “Protect & Standardize” section. Unfortunately, there’s not a way to quickly navigate the headings via keyboard so you can either shift+Tab 10 times or simply use the search bar and type “Accessibility” (the results will update automatically). Expand the Accessibility dropdown menu and click “Add Shortcut” (keyboard users can use the up and down arrow keys to navigate the dropdown).

A screenshot of Acrobat's Tools page highlighting the Accessibility tool. The dropdown is expanded showing the options for: Close [the drop down], remove shortcut, and learn more

And that’s it! The Accessibility shortcut should now be available in your Task pane.

Mouse instructions

  • Access Tools:
    • Method 1: Click “Tools” in the Document toolbar at the top of the page
    • Method 2: Click “More Tools” in the Task pane on the right-hand side of the Acrobat window (if your Task pane is not expanded, click the left-pointing chevron to expand it)
  • Scroll down to the “Protect & Standardize” section
  • Click on “Add” under “Accessibility”

Keyboard instructions

  • Access Tools:
    • Method 1: Press F6 until you’re focused on “Home” and Tab until you’re focused on “Tools.” Press Enter
    • Method 2: Press F6 until you’re focused on the “Find Tools” button (sighted users may find it helpful to press Shift+F4 to expand the Task pane). Shift+Tab once or twice until you’re focused on “More Tools.” Press Enter.
  • Press F6 again to focus inside the Tools page
  • Type “Accessibility” in the “Search tools” input (results will update automatically)
  • Tab (about three times) until you’re focused on the “Add” button (screen readers will read “Add Accessibility Tools Shortcut split button”). Press Enter.

Using the Accessibility Check tool

Acrobat provides an “Accessibility Check” option which can be extremely helpful for getting an overview of issues that may exist within your PDF. Scanning a document for accessibility errors will be able to catch a higher percentage of issues than an automatic scan on a website due to its more simplistic nature; however, we don’t want to depend on it 100%. But it is fantastic for making sure all your images have alt text, your tables have headers, and picking things up around the edges.

Once you’ve activated “Accessibility Check,” a dialogue box will appear. For the most part, the default settings should be adequate (though I encourage you to explore and adjust on your own when you’re more comfortable). By default, it will create an accessibility report, check every page in the PDF, check all elements of the document, and assess the checked boxes.

The first setting in the dialogue is the “Create accessibility report” option and you can choose whether or not you want this on. Below the initial check box you have the option to choose where a report saves on your machine (it will save as an html file) and to attach a couple to the PDF itself (which you can review by clicking “Accessibility Report” from the Accessibility Task pane). This could be helpful for you to review or a report to send to someone if need be. However, I find myself turning it off most of the time by unchecking “Create accessibility report.”

Otherwise, navigate to “Start Checking” and allow the scan to run.

Interpreting the results

The accessibility checker results will appear in a tree-view pane on the left-hand side of the Acrobat window. Keyboard users will need to use F6 again to navigate over to the results pane. 

A screenshot of Acrobat's accessibility checker pane shower the parent categories: Document (3 issues), page content, forms, alternate text, tables (1 issue), lists (1 issue), and headings

You can expand and collapse the report categories by clicking them (or, on your keyboard, use the up and down arrow keys to navigate the categories and left and right to expand and collapse them). Clicking on some issues within documents will automatically move focus to the location of the issue within the PDF and highlight the problem items (this automatically occurs when navigating the tree view via keyboard).

The results will give you a good idea of some of the issues your PDF document may have. If you’re unsure of what an issue means, Acrobat provides explanations. You can access these explanations by either right-clicking an issue and selecting “Explain” from the drop-down or from your keyboard by navigating to the issue with the arrow keys, pressing Tab to focus on the “Context Menu,” pressing Enter to expand the drop-down and then using your arrows keys to navigate to “Explain.” This will open a browser window in your default browser (or a new tab if you already have a browser open). The page is extremely long, containing explanations on all the potential issues the Accessibility Checker will look for, but automatically scroll to the issue you specifically inquired about. It will open a new tab every time you select “Explain.”

From the context menu, you can also tell the checker to skip specific rules or check for that instance again after making changes to see if that fixed the problem.

Mouse instructions

  • Click “Accessibility” from the Task pane
  • Click “Accessibility Check” from the Accessibility tool pane
  • Select the options you’d like the check to address in the dialogue box
  • Click “Start Checking”
  • Expand and collapse issues to address them
  • To see explanations of the issues, right-click and select “Explain” from the drop-down

Keyboard instructions

  • F6 to get to the Task pane
  • Tab through the Task pane until you’re focused on “Accessibility.” Press Enter
  • Press F6 to refocus into the Accessibility tool pane
  • Tab or use arrow keys until you are focused on “Accessibility Check.” Press Enter.
  • Select the options you’d like the check to address in the dialogue box
  • Navigate to the “Start Checking” button and press Enter
  • Press F6 until you’re focused in the Accessibility Check results (screen readers will likely hear “Document tree view”)
  • Use the arrow keys to navigate the tree view (up and down will move to different issues, right and left will expand and collapse parent issues)
  • To hear an explanation on an issue, be focused on the issue you’d like an explanation of and press Tab to focus on the “Context Menu.” Press Enter to expand the drop-down and use the down arrow key to navigate to “Explain” and press Enter (this will open up a browser tab to an article on the Adobe website)

Concluding the accessibility checker episode

Acrobat’s accessibility checker, like any automatic checker, can only monitor a fraction of the potential accessibility issues that may exist within your document. While it’s a great tool to help you correct some issues that may have gone unnoticed, it’s important to not rely on it as the end-all-be-all authority of the accessibility of your document. Additional issues will have to be manually checked for and manually corrected. And by the end of this series, you’ll know how to do both! See you next time!

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