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Breaking down barriers: A comprehensive guide to accessible PDFs

Legal situation, requirements for accessible PDFs and technical standards


Created on 31. March 2023

A blind woman operates a braille display with her hands to read a accessible digital document
Table of contents

Today’s increasing focus on digital accessibility is also driving the need to provide accessible documents. But what is an accessible PDF document in the first place, and what benefits does it offer? From a technical point of view, what makes a document accessible anyway, and which industries are affected? 

This article sheds some light on a rather multi-layered topic and offers insights into these and other questions.


What are accessible PDFs and who can benefit from them?

An accessible document is a digital publication, typically in PDF format, with content that – thanks to appropriate hardware and software – is fully accessible to people with disabilities such as impaired vision or hearing. Accessible documents can be single PDFs or more complex publications such as periodicals, books, annual reports, and documentation.

By making these documents accessible, their content is available to everyone; after all, more than one billion people worldwide live with disabilities, including 9.6 million people in Germany alone. Assistive technologies such as screen readers and Braille displays give impaired individuals equal and autonomous access to all of the content.


Accessible documents unlock a world of advantages  

Accessible PDFs help to ensure that everyone has equal access to information. They work to level the playing field for everyone, and encourage people with disabilities to be an active part of the larger community. Accessible PDFs deliver a range of advantages to both the companies that publish them and the people who use them.

For users:

  • Increased ease of use: Clear structures and consistent formatting improve the usability and reading experience of documents.
  • Maximum accessibility: Technical aids such as screen readers and Braille displays make the content fully readable for people with disabilities.

For businesses:

  • Increased customer retention: Providing accessible PDFs is a dedicated customer service, which helps build customer loyalty to the company.
  • Greater inclusivity: By providing fully accessible PDFs, businesses are doing their part to promote equality and inclusion for everyone.
  • Enhanced image: Tangibly fostering inclusiveness and accommodating a variety of physical conditions demonstrates a sincere commitment – ultimately creating a positive public image.


What is the technical standard for creating an accessible PDF?

Developed by experts from all over the world, the international ISO 14289-1 standard, also known as the PDF/UA standard, has established itself as the standard for creating accessible PDFs. The abbreviation “UA” stands for “universal accessibility,” a clear expression of its objective.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published the PDF/UA standard in July 2012 under the official name ISO 14289-1. Document management applications - Electronic document file format enhancement for accessibility. It sets forth uniform and explicit specifications and technical requirements for designing a corresponding document, and also provides additional benefits:

  • Legal compliance: PDF/UA is a globally recognized standard that satisfies the digital accessibility requirements that many countries and industries are legally required to meet.
  • Security: PDF/UA documents are protected against unauthorized changes and it is possible to digitally sign them.
  • Long-term archiving: PDF/UA documents are designed for long-term archiving and will remain understandable and easy to use in the future.
  • Interoperability: PDF/UA documents are compatible with all of the prevailing assistive technologies and operating systems.


Checklist: What makes a PDF an accessible PDF?

In order to be accessible to as many people as possible, PDFs need to meet several features, including:

  • The content of the document is “tagged” or logically structured
  • The document is composed of searchable text
  • Metadata is available for both internal and external search functions
  • Alternative text is provided for images and graphics
  • Settings such as font sizes and background colors can be individually customized
  • The document title is self-explanatory
  • Decorative images are labeled as background
  • Bookmarks and tables of contents are used as navigation aids
  • Explanations are provided for abbreviations and acronyms


The digital accessibility of a document can already be ensured at the time of its creation. There are a number of ways to do this:

  • Manual inspection: A person manually reviews a document for the relevant requirements, using guidelines such as the PDF/UA standard for reference. During a manual review, the reviewer checks for things like whether alternative text descriptions are available for images and tables and whether they make sense. They also make sure that the structure of the document is clear and logical, and that the fonts and colors are easy to read.
  • System-based testing: There are already some software programs available that are able to automatically evaluate a document for accessibility even while it is still being created. One example is the Xpublisher Multichannel Publishing System, which requires authors to assign metadata when they integrate images or tables. These and other specifications enable users to automatically design and generate a document in a way that ultimately produces a completely accessible end product. Besides creating new content that is accessible right from the start, Xpublisher can also be used to create PDF/UA-compliant PDF documents from existing content (such as legacy content).


Reliable compliance testing should always include a combination of both methods. While software is capable of checking all the technical requirements, only humans can review a document for semantic considerations (aspects like logical reading sequence and the content of alternative texts).


The legal situation: Public authorities as pioneers and other impacted industries

Laws like the Disability Equality Act (Behindertengleichstellungsgesetz), the Accessibility Act (Barrierefreiheitsstärkungsgesetz), and the Web Accessibility Act (Web-Zugänglichkeits-Gesetz) already require public authorities in Germany to use accessible software and provide barrier-free websites and apps. That turns public authorities into pioneers of digital accessibility. 

In addition, the Online Access Act (Onlinezugangsgesetz; (OZG)), which came into force at the end of 2022, requires federal and state governments to provide their administrative services (such as applications and forms) electronically, and to create an IT infrastructure that allows every user to access the services in a very user-friendly way. As such, the OZG is closely linked to the issue of accessible documents.

But beyond government agencies, other organizations and industries are being asked to provide accessible PDFs as well. To meet future legal requirements, many businesses and institutions across a broad range of industries are currently working to ensure digital accessibility. These efforts have been driven by the Accessibility Act, which took effect in July 2021 and stipulates that any product or service launched after June 28, 2025 has to be accessible to everyone.

As a result, the following industries are already making headway in this regard:

  • Education: Schools and universities are required to make their teaching materials and other documents fully accessible to every student.
  • Finance: Financial institutions and banks are expanding their accessible offerings significantly.
  • Healthcare: Clinics, hospitals, and other medical facilities are making patient information and medical documents available in accessible formats.
  • The travel and tourism sector: Travel agencies support travelers with disabilities by providing documentation in accessible formats.
  • Regulated industries: Industries that are subject to mandatory requirements, such as utilities, insurance companies, and the media, are also expanding their offerings to provide unrestricted access to everyone.


Summing up and looking ahead

Promoting diversity, inclusion and equality for everyone has gained tremendous momentum in recent years and will continue to grow in significance globally in the coming years:

  • Businesses and organizations that are early adopters of digital inclusion can reap tangible competitive benefits, making it a smart idea to address the issue early on.
  • As we move forward, the legislation around digital inclusion will see continued progress and changes. Government agencies are already required by law to provide accessible end products. By the same token, companies need to be ready to provide accessible products and services from 2025 onwards. We are evolving into a society that is more inclusive and equitable, one that every business can contribute to right now.


Are you looking for a publishing system that automatically generates accessible PDF documents as a rule? Xpublisher lets you create and publish all kinds of accessible publications, and – thanks to its cloud-based software-as-a-service approach – it’s ready to use instantly, no expensive and long-winded deployment required.

Visit our product page to find out more about Xpublisher. If you have any questions about our Multichannel Publishing System, or want to explore the product in more depth, be sure to set up a complimentary product demo.