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How To Make 508 Compliant PDF


Word was never designed to be a page building tool but used properly it’s great for source files which will end up as accessible PDFs.

How to Make PDFs Accessible (508 Compliant PDF)

For those brave ones who wish to do it themselves, we have included this page with step-by-step instructions on how to make your PDF accessible and therefore compliant. (Acrobat Pro is required).

STEP 1. Start with good source files.

PDFs are meant to be difficult to change/edit so it’s important to minimize your PDF remediation efforts by creating & saving the source files properly. See Best practices: a list of recommendations for creating Word source files. The closer you can adhere to these recommendations, the less PDF remediation will be required.

STEP 2. Familiarize yourself with the standards.

See Standards and Requirements in What We Do page.

STEP 3. Choose the proper tagging method.

Compliance is primarily about tagging the document’s content properly. The PDF can have one of three starting points; untagged, improperly tagged, or an image only.  Each starting point requires a different tagging process.

  • Starting Point 1. Tagging an Untagged PDF File

    Whether a PDF is tagged can be determined by opening the Tags Navigation Pane. If the PDF is not tagged you will see “No Tags available”.

    Screenshot of a Tags tree showing the PDF is not tagged.

    There are three methods to tag an untagged PDF.

    Tagging Note

    Numerous glitches can occur during the tagging process. On rare occasions, some PDFs are unsalvageable and the source file must be corrected.

    METHOD 1 — Acrobat’s Auto Tag Tool. In the Tags Tree, right click on “No Tags available” and choose “Add Tags to Document.” Acrobat will do its best to assign each element its appropriate tag. Unless the document is very simple (like a letter), this first step will not yield complete/proper tags, or generate Bookmarks. It also will not create alt text (explained below in Figures). Once Acrobat processes “Add Tags to Document,” a report will automatically display. This report is similar to Acrobat’s Accessibility Full Check (meant to show fundamental errors and fixes but not a complete check for compliance).

    Return to the Tags Tree: To reveal the tags and their hierarchy, Ctrl click on the box to the left of “Tags”. The root (parent) tag to all subsequent tags in the file should be <Document>. Tag names of groupings within a document are not specified in standards/requirements. Typically, a document contains groups of pages and <Part> tag is often used for this initial grouping. <Part> is a child to <Document> so it belongs indented under <Document>. Pages often contain subgroups of Sections. Section is the child of Part so <Sect> belongs indented under <Part>. The tags for the actual elements of content are children of their <Sect> and are sequenced according to their intended reading order.


    You are now able to manipulate the tags. Click and hold tag to drag it where you want. Double click within a tag to rename it. Right clicking on a tag provides several options including adding or deleting a tag.

    Figures require alternative text (a written explanation/description of the art). Right click on the <Figure> tag and choose properties. In the Tag tab, write the description in the alternate text window and click close. If the source file was done properly, figures will be tagged correctly and already have their alt text.

    Lists: the proper tags and hierarchy are <L>, <LI>, <Lbl>, <LBody>. List is the parent of List Item, which is the parent of both Label and List Body.


    Tables: the proper tags and hierarchy are <Table>, <TR>, <TH> or <TD>. Table is the parent of Table Row, which is the parent of Table Header cell or Table Data cell. Tables must have column and row headers (<TH> with designated scope of Row or Column).

    Table of Contents: the proper tags and hierarchy are <TOC>, <TOCI>, <Link>. Table of Contents is the parent of Table of Contents Item, which is the parent of Link.

    Fig3Table Fig4TOC


    Artifacts: Any element that does not convey meaningful information is called an artifact. They are not in the Tags Tree. If auto-tagging assigns a tag to a meaningless element, open the tag, right click on the element and chose “change Tag to artifact”. This will result in removing the element from the tag – delete the empty tag. Artifacts are in the Content Tree (a different navigation panel) and must be designated as <Artifact>.

    “Walk the Tags Tree”: Open all the tags. Click on the first tag (<Document>) in the Tags Tree and use the down arrow key to scroll through all the tags to confirm the intended tag designation, order, and hierarchy and that they conform to standards/requirements. Obviously, knowing the proper tagging standards is key.

    Correct the Tags: Identifying what is wrong and how to correct the problems comes with experience.

    Run Full Check (under Advanced/Accessibility): This tool will generate and display results of Acrobat’s accessibility test. Full Check is not very thorough but it does catch a lot. Depending on the individual(s) testing your files, it may be sufficient. Fix any errors displayed following Hints for Repair. If your files are tested with any degree of sophistication, you’ll need to run your PDF through PAC 2. Fix errors.

    METHOD 2 — Acrobat’s Tool to Build a Tag Tree Manually. In the Tags Tree, right click on “No Tags available” and chose “Create Tags Root.”

    “Tags” will now be displayed. Right click on it. Choose “New Tag.” You now have the ability to choose tags to start building your Tags Tree. Follow the parent/child hierarchy explained in Method 1.

    Choosing Document & OK will now display <Document> indented under Tags. Right click on <Document>, click new tag and choose a group tag (<Part>). Since Part is the child of Document, move <Part> to indent under <Document>. Right click on <Part>, click new tag again and chose a subgroup (Section). Indent <Sect> under <Part>. Right click on <Sect>, click New Tag and chose a tag for the first element – usually Heading level 1, which is typically the main “title of a document”. <H1> is now displayed in the Tags Tree under <Sect>. Indent <H1> under <Sect>.

    To test the hierarchy of parent/child, click on the box to the left of the parent to view or hide its children.

    The <H1> now needs to be assigned to the element (in this case, title of the document). Highlight the title of the document (left click and scroll over the document title). In the Tags Tree, right click on <H1> and choose Create Tag from Selection. [Note: This choice may not be visible if “Highlight Content” is checked (right click on the tag for “Highlight Content” setting).] The “title” is now displayed indented under the <H1>. You will soon learn how well the source file was created. If the element you highlight “grabs” additional, unwanted content or “grabs” it out of order, you have to use the Content Tree to separate, isolate, and order the content. This is when you might also notice font recognition problems. The element displayed under the tag reflects how the highlighted words were interpreted by Acrobat. (Because only the initial words of the element display, this cannot be relied upon to ensure there were no font problems. Opening all the words/sentences in the Content Tree will reveal this.)

    Right click on <H1> and choose New Tag. Tag choice may be Figure, Heading level 2, Paragraph – whatever element is intended to be sequenced next and repeat the highlight and create process.

    “Walk the Tags Tree,” run Full Check, and correct errors.

    Method 3 — Acrobat’s Touchup Reading Order (TURO) In the Tags Tree, follow the steps in Method 2 to create the tag root <Document>, <Part>, <Sect>.

    Under Tools/Accessibility, open TouchUp Reading Order tool. [Note: None of the content will be enclosed in a box with the page content’s reading order number. If it is, the file had been tagged at some point and you need to Clear Page Structure in the TURO.]

    Placing your mouse over the page will reveal a cross hatch. Left click and hold to encircle the element you want to be tagged first. [Note: if the source file was not created or saved properly, you may not be able to isolate what you want and will need to separate the elements in the Content Tree.]

    Click one of tag choices displayed in the TURO (the choices are limited to those most commonly used). The page will now display that content boxed with the number 1 (the first element in the reading order). Back in the Tags Tree, move the newly created tag so it is indented under <Sect> making it a child of Section. Continue tagging the rest of the page content. “Walk the Tags Tree,” run Full Check, and correct errors.

  • Starting Point 2. Taging an Improperly Tagged PDF File

    Tags generated from poor source files or from an improper saving process will likely result in incorrect tags. Whether or not the tags are correct can be determined by walking the Tags Tree. Improperly tagged PDFs can be difficult to make accessible. A “work-around” can usually be found but there are simply too many variables to create a library of fixes.

    If the damage isn’t too bad, it’s possible to simply edit and rearrange the tags.

    If Tags Are Not Salvageable: In the Tags Tree, right click on Tags and choose Delete tag. The first entry in the Tags Tree will now be “No Tags Available.” Then follow any of the three methods described above. CAUTION: deleting tags and retagging can cause a number of problems—dropped content and Unicode error messages are two of the most common, and the culprit is often fonts. If retagging does not provide workable results, you have two choices; (1) go back to the source file and correct what’s wrong (see recommendations for creating Word source files) or (2) send it to a professional who may be able to get it tagged.


    Test and save regulary.

    Note: Save and test as you go. When encountering a problem, a work-around is often found by trial and error. The “error” part of this method can make your file corrupt beyond repair. So, save and test regularly.

    Simply nothing you can do: Anyone familiar with using software can attest to glitches. They happen for no reason so they’re not even learning experiences. And they can be particularly insidious. If a glitch happens while trying a workaround that actually fixes the problem, you don’t realize your solution worked, write it off and keep searching for another. This is a mood changer if there ever was one!

  • Starting Point 3. Tagging a PDF Image Only File

    Tags Tree has the word “Tags” and nothing else: A page that exists only as hard copy (content printed on paper) can be scanned and saved as a PDF. This is generally referred to as an “image only PDF” or, no text-based information, meaning files cannot be searched by their text content. The printed page is now an electronic file that can be sent anywhere and viewed by anyone with Adobe Reader — that is, anyone who can see. Tags cannot be applied to image only PDFs. The generally accepted approach is to OCR the page. In PDF, Tools/Document Processing/Optimized Scanned PDF, choose desired range. [Note: OCR will not function if any of the text is already renderable (actual words and not a picture of the words).] This identifies the characters/words so they can now be tagged (following methods above). Unless the content is unusually clear, OCR doesn’t recognize all the characters correctly. Obviously, misidentified words will not be found in an AT’s dictionary. The OCR results must be proofread and corrections must be incorporated into the Tags Tree by assigning the incorrect content a tag and typing the corrected version into “actual text” (right click , properties, actual text).

    Additionally, Unicodes (characters incorrectly mapped by Acrobat) can be introduced. Fixing Unicode problems can be challenging for the most experienced professionals—but solved by Matrix 508 experts!


Selecting “New Bookmarks from Structure” (dropdown choice from icon) will automate the creation of Bookmarks (with no hierarchy). There is a character limit so additional typing to complete the Bookmark name may be required. Then establish hierarchy.

STEP 4. Add Bookmarks and Save Properly.

Bookmarks are in Navigation panes and are required for documents with 10 or more pages. If the source file was created and saved properly, Bookmarks will already be done. If there are no Bookmarks, click on the icon (upper left) and select New Bookmark. Name the Bookmark. Scroll to the desired destination page, right click on newly created Bookmark and select Set Destination. Click on icon and create more Bookmarks. Bookmarks are used for navigating the PDF so they should have a hierarchy (like a Table of Contents or a Tags Tree). Bookmark requirements are an agency-specific standard and generally not required for PDFs fewer than 10 pages. Agency-specific requirements include instructions for web save and document properties. Researching these instructions and implementing them is very important.