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Document Accessibility Guide

Instructions on how to use Microsoft Word, Adobe Acrobat, and Microsoft PowerPoint to make files Accessible according to the Americans Disability Act.

The Basics

PDFs are meant to be a stable format. Therefore, making the necessary edits to make PDF files accessible can be more complicated. Whenever possible, I suggest you make the file accessible in a Word format and then save the Word file to a PDF. However, there will be times when you must make a PDF accessible without access to the original format. You must have access to the Adobe Acrobat Pro DC version of the product as Adobe Reader does not have access to the required tools to make a PDF file accessible. If you are a CSUSM student, staff, or faculty member you can download the full Adobe Creative Cloud from Instructional & Information Technology Services (IITS)

When working in Adobe, save often and save different versions of your file. There is no easy "undo" option when working with most aspects of Adobe Acrobat Pro. If you make a mistake that you can't easily resolve, having a recent back-up version is extremely helpful.

Accessibility in Adobe Acrobat can be overwhelming. The below document is an overview of using Adobe's Accessibility Checker to identify accessibility errors and the categories of errors that need to be corrected to make a document accessible. 

Document Structure

Headings provide structure to your document, just like the outline of a research paper. Headings allow users to jump to specific sections of your file as well as get a high level overview of the document as a whole as if they were a table of contents.

Headings should be hierarchical. The title of your document is Heading 1, main sections of the document are Heading 2, and subsections within those main sections are Heading 3 etc. A book would have the Title as Heading 1, Chapters as Heading 2, sections within the chapters as Heading 3, and list of terms within the subs-sections as Heading 4. It is important not to skip a Heading level. For instance you should not start a chapter (Heading 2) and then go directly into a sub-section (Heading 4). This confuses assistive technology. 

The handout gives instructions on how to add Headings to a PDF file with no Headings and how to edit a document that has some Headings, but may be missing levels or have other structural errors. 


To be accessible, tables must be properly interpreted by assistive technology which requires following certain rules. For instance, Images of tables are almost never accessible and should not be used because screen readers cannot access the information within the table. Please see the step by step instructions below for information on fixing common errors regarding tables. 

Alternate Text for Images

Alternate text should be no longer than a sentence or two and describe the image. When deciding what to write as alternate text consider why the image is included in the file and what would be important for a user to know about it. If the file is about Art and includes an image of a painting with a cow on grass in front of a barn, a suitable alternate text might be, "Pastoral scene illustrating romantic overtones". Don't try to describe every element in the image. Instead give a meaningful overview of the entire picture.