PDF/A – The format of the future – Part 4: PDF/UA

Now that parts 1 to 3 of our blog series covered the subject of PDF/A and the formats PDF/A-1PDF/A-2 and PDF/A-3, it’s time to share some details about the PDF/UA format and how you can use it to generate PDFs that – as its UA designation indicates – will ensure universal accessibility, especially for people with disabilities.

The PDF/UA format has been the norm for creating accessible PDF documents in accordance with ISO standard 14289-1 since 2012. This standard sets forth the specifications and requirements for accessibility.

What is accessibility?

Enabling all people to freely access and benefit from communications and technology is the basic thought underlying accessibility. Doing this requires that all existing barriers be eliminated as completely as possible. One example of such barriers is when an individual is unable to access information on the web because of impaired vision or some other disability. This also applies to PDF documents that cannot be opened, read, or read aloud to such individuals. Websites are also considered not barrier free when for reasons of age, social background or outmoded computer technology people can only very poorly use or understand the range of information provided or not at all.

There are many technologies available today that can enable people with disabilities to operate a computer and make the content on the internet usable for everyone. These include screen readers, eye trackers, a mouth-controlled mouse and refreshable braille displays.

Accessibility: Prescribed by law since 2012

The PDF/UA format plays a pivotal role in supporting the fundamental idea behind accessibility. The use of accessible PDFs is important for public facilities and government entities in particular, since the law requires that such undertakings be provided with accessible information technology. Since 2002, § 11 of the Equal Rights for Disabled Persons Act has required by statute that the websites of German federal agencies be accessible. Accessible information and web content offerings are strongly recommended for the private sector as well, meaning that the websites and PDFs that it furnishes should always be capable of being accessed to the greatest extent possible. Today’s modern businesses realize just how important it is to offer this kind of access. Doing so is a sign of integrity and social responsibility, not to mention how offering accessible content will also engage a much broader group of customers.

How does a traditional PDF differ from PDF/UA?

The demands in terms of accessibility are somewhat different than for conventional PDFs, which above all are expected to consistently render the document’s original visual appearance. What accessibility means, however, is that the user can adjust how documents are presented and depicted. This includes typeface, font size, color rendering, keyboard operation, reading order and speech recognition.

The PDF/UA format was developed to fulfill these requirements and has been an ISO standard since 2012. Apart from the fact that people should never be excluded, along with the value of being able to reach and cater to a broader clientele, another key advantage of PDF/UA documents is their usability on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. What’s more, PDF/UA conforming documents are sure to always fit and display properly on these mobile devices.

Another benefit is the way in which accessible websites and accessible PDF documents vastly enhance usability for users and the reading audience alike. This in turn provides people with a very pleasant and gratifying experience – and the same is true for Google in its role as a search engine. Search engines react favorably to user-friendly (i.e. well maintained and reliable) information and will rank such content higher within their search results.

The bottom line: Accessible PDF documents should be of the same quality and readability for everyone – whether they have special needs or not.

Key requirements for accessible PDFs

  • Tags to structure the document (in a logical order): Tagged PDFs are documents in which headings, lists, links or graphics are marked with tags on a structural level. The fact that tags represent the document’s semantic structures makes them important for identifying a reading direction and for simplifying the navigation in a PDF. Tags enable screen readers to interpret and read the documents aloud much better.
  • The document’s language must be declared
  • A sensible document structure with a logical reading order
  • Headings and other styles
  • Links, a table of contents, or bookmarks as navigation aids
  • Either contain no images or graphics, or describe them in text form so that a screen reader can communicate them (graphics, along with all links and form fields, generally require an alternate text description)
  • Images should not be wrapped around the text, but be “In Line with Text” instead
  • Texts must have sufficient contrast and spaces must be present
  • Security settings must allow the use of a screen reader
  • Tables must be created correctly and be marked up
  • Form fields must always be accessible
  • Font size should be adjustable

How do you create a document in PDF/UA format?

The first step in creating a PDF/UA is to always work with style elements, headings and paragraphs in whatever word processing system you are using. Every image should be given an alternative text description and hyperlinks should be tagged within the text document. Doing this will save you a lot of work later when creating accessible PDFs. As a matter of routine, we strongly recommend that you always make the documents accessible ahead of time (e.g. with Microsoft Word). And you should use the Accessibility Checker in Word before doing the actual PDF/UA conversion:


The PDF document can then be checked and optimized later using most PDF readers. In any case, text documents that are well structured and marked up are a requirement, as these will lead almost automatically to a reading order that is clear and unambiguous.

Admittedly, it takes some extra work to make a PDF accessible. Simply having to create tags and bookmarks involves additional effort. Still, you’ve got to admit that there is a definite added value to be had from all this hard work. After all, text content that is well structured and formatted is easy to read even by people who do not have special needs for accessibility, but nevertheless appreciate clarity and good writing.

Checking PDFs for accessibility

Properly testing and validating documents for accessibility is an extremely worthwhile thing to do. Here are some helpful instructions on how to create PDF/UA documents: Checklist: Accessible PDF Documents.

Additional helpful tips for checking PDF/UAs

  1. You can check PDFs for accessibility without any special software by using Microsoft Word and clicking File/Info/Check for Issues/Check Accessibility.
  2. To check if an existing PDF is a “PDF with Tags,” you can open the document in Adobe Acrobat Reader and then click File/Properties/Description (keyboard shortcut Ctrl+D). The word “Yes” should appear next to “Tagged PDF.”
  3. To create a PDF with tags you must choose Save & Send and not use the printer menu.
  4. Always begin by assigning the document a title and defining the document’s primary language.

Other PDF formats

  • PDF/X (for graphics and printing)
  • PDF/E (for engineering documents)
  • PDF/H (for healthcare documents)
  • PDF/VT (for high-volume variable and transactional printing)