PDF accessibility

  • Abstract

    Two hundred portable document format (PDF) articles from four Web of Science‐indexed disability‐related journals were analysed to assess their accessibility. Fifty articles from each journal published between 2014 and 2018 were examined using expert manual inspection, Adobe Acrobat Pro XI, PDF Accessibility Checker 3 and NVDA screen reader. Results show that only 15.5% of the documents were tagged, only 10.5% had alternative text for images, 74.5% had bookmarks to facilitate navigation, and 87% had meaningful titles in their title fields. However, image alternative texts were meaningless, and title fields were not displayed when the document was open. However, all the documents had accessibility permissions enabled; hence, they could be read with Adobe Acrobat Pro XI Read Out Loud feature and NVDA screen reader. All the articles had an alternative HTML version of their full text in the same location on their website as the PDF versions. The inconsistency with which each PDF was produced suggests the need for an improvement in the workflow process to improve accessibility.


    Nganji, J.T. (2018). An assessment of the accessibility of PDF versions of selected journal articles published in a WCAG 2.0 era (2014–2018). Learned Publishing 31 (4), 391-401 https://doi.org/10.1002/leap.1197

  • Abstract

    Purpose: This paper aims to suggest how the information journey of students with disabilities could be facilitated, by first revealing the existence of inaccessible formats such as Portable Document Format (PDF) and then suggesting the inclusion of alternative formats of accessible learning materials, thus improving retrieval.

    Design/methodology/approach: A sample of 400 articles published over 10 years (2009-2018) from four journals are selected and analysed for accessibility against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines WCAG 2.0 by using automated accessibility checkers, a screen reader and manual human expertise. The results are presented and recommendations made on improving accessibility.
    Findings: The findings suggest that the PDF versions of the selected journal articles are not accessible for screen reader users but could be improved by adopting accessible and inclusive practices. Including alternative formats of the learning materials could help support the student information journey.

    Research limitations/implications: The results of the study might not be very representative of all the articles in the journals given the small sample size. Additionally, the criteria used in the study do not consider all existing disabilities. Thus, although the PDFs may be inaccessible for some people with disabilities, they may be accessible to others.

    Practical implications: Given that PDFs seem to be the preferred format of journal articles online, there is potential for a difficult information journey for some students due to the limitations posed by inaccessibility of the PDFs. Thus, it is recommended to include alternative formats which could be more accessible, giving the student the choice of accessing the learning materials in their preferred format.

    Social implications: If students are unable to access the learning materials that are required for their course, this could lead to poor grade, which might negatively affect the students’ morale. In some cases, some students might drop out.

    Originality/value: This study analyses the accessibility of learning materials provided by a third party (journal publishers) and how they affect the student, something that is not usually given much importance when research in accessibility is carried out.



    Julius T. Nganji, (2018) "Supporting the information journey of students with disabilities through accessible learning materials", Information and Learning Science, Vol. 119 Issue: 12, pp.721-732, https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-07-2018-0062

  • Abstract

    People with disabilities, especially those who are blind, rely on assistive technologies to read information on the web. When this information does not conform to accessibility standards, assistive technologies experience significant difficulties trying to interpret it. Journal publishers prefer to publish articles online in the portable document format (PDF), which may pose accessibility challenges when guidelines such as WCAG 2.0 are not adhered to. So far, no studies have been carried out to evaluate the accessibility of published versions of journal articles in PDF format. A total of 200 articles, 50 articles each from Taylor & Francis' Disability & Society, Springer's Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, Hammill Institute on Disabilities/SAGE's Journal of Learning Disabilities and Elsevier's Research in Developmental Disabilities, which are all ISI Web of Science indexed journals published from 2009 to 2013, were analyzed manually, automatically, and with screen readers for accessibility. The results reveal that 97% did not provide an alternative text for images; 95.5% were not tagged; only 13.5% had meaningful titles which were not displayed when the document was opened; 67% did not have a defined document language; 50% bookmarks, which help in navigation; all had accessibility permissions, enabling assistive technologies to interact with them; 99.5% did not have a logical reading order; none had a consistent heading structure; and all, including untagged documents which were not image-only PDFs documents could be read with screen readers such as NVDA if the correct accessibility settings in Adobe Acrobat XI Pro were chosen. Research in Developmental Disabilities documents were generally more accessible.


    Nganji, J.T. (2015). The Portable Document Format (PDF) Accessibility Practice of Four Journal Publishers. Library and Information Science Research, Volume 35, Issue 3, pp. 254-262. [Link to article].

Julius T. Nganji's Profile


Julius T. Nganji, PhD

Researcher, passionate about digital accessibility & usability and improving user experience.

Adjunct Lecturer

Department of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy
Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto



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