Bridges Resource Library

Hacks for Making Text PDFs Accessible

Updated as of February 4, 2024.

Here are some tips to help you access text on inaccessible PDFs.

Why It Matters

PDFs are everywhere; PDF accessibility is not. To complicate matters, the ability of PDFs to be accessible is widely misunderstood; some have the mistaken belief that PDFs cannot be made to be accessible for blind individuals and thus prevent blind students from having the opportunity to learn how to interact with accessible PDFs and how to remediate inaccessible PDFs.

Navigating PDFs

Even if a PDF is accessible, you need to know how to use your accessible assistive technology to access it efficiently. Here is a quick “cheat sheet” from Freedom Scientific, the creator of JAWS screen reading software, to get you started: Prevent Document Frustration: JAWS and PDFs Guide, and check out Elizabeth Whitaker’s APH Access Academy presentation Prevent Document Frustration JAWS and PDFs. As always, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Free Bridges Helpdesk with any questions.

Accessing Text on Inaccessible PDFs

Often, when a PDF is inaccessible, it has been saved as a graphic. Even though text might appear on the screen, the screen is actually showing a PICTURE of text. The computer only recognizes the picture; it cannot recognize the text.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) can be the answer to this problem. As its name implies, OCR software scans the picture and attempts to recognize portions of the picture as alphabetical or numerical characters (letters or numbers). As discussed in our Bridges Resource Library Hacks for Making Screenshots/Screen-shares Accessible entry, the widely-used screen reading software JAWS has built-in OCR capabilities with its tool called Convenient OCR.

OCR Inaccessible PDFs

Sometimes people share PDFs that they have scanned into the computer as image files. Many times, they might not realize what they have done; they are just using the default settings of their scanners. Convenient OCR is a great tool to provide you with immediate access to these PDFs! Here are the steps to perform this Inaccessible PDF Hack:

Open the PDF and use Convenient OCR:

OCR Saved Screen-shares

Screenshares are a perfect example of an inaccessible PDF.

Another installment in this series discussed using Convenient OCR to access screen-shared text in real-time, but you might also want to save the screen-shared information for later reference. To do this, you can take screenshots during the presentation, save them, and use OCR on them after the presentation to create your own accessible document. Here are some steps that can make this process easier:

Note: Convenient OCR “is only available in JAWS and Zoomtext Fusion, it is not available in Zoomtext Screen Magnifier” and it “requires an active internet connection.” From New Features of JAWS and Zoomtext Fusion 2021.

Continue Advocating for Accessible Documents

Tools like Convenient OCR are great, but they are not perfect. Convenient OCR provides you with text, but it cannot create headings or other text features (including tables). Also, poor-quality PDFs may keep Convenient OCR from providing you accurate text, and, while Convenient OCR is quick, it does take a bit of time to perform.

Know that there are federal laws that require most schools and businesses to provide “reasonable accommodations” that you request, and accessible files (whether PDFs, Word, or PowerPoint) are examples of reasonable accommodations.

The Free Bridges Helpdesk is here to help with you what you need, whether it’s technical help, advocacy, or anything else. Remember, all Bridges Helpdesk help is private and confidential, and we are here for you.

Contact the Bridges Helpdesk for More Information

This unique project is being coordinated through The IMAGE Center of Maryland, a center for independent living in Towson, and it is funded by a grant from the Maryland Department of Education Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services.

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