So What Does an Accessible PDF Look Like?

This entry is part 11 of 18 in the series Tutorials


Next week, I plan to do a tutorial about how to layer PDFs. It’s simple, painless, and does a lot to improve the accessibility of a document. Layering a PDF allows users to toggle the visibility of certain elements. If a background is causing contrast issues, for example, the user can simply hide the background and the text becomes much clearer.

Layers are just one aspect of an accessible PDF. Bookmarks and tags are just as important, and I’ve already written a tutorial about how to do both of those.

This week, I’ll show off a PDF that scores high marks in accessibility. It’s Shaintar: Legends Arise by Evil Beagle Games, who have been kind enough to allow me to share screenshots of their book. After seeing what a great PDF looks like, you’ll be able to better understand why it’s important and why you should follow suit.


When a PDF is properly bookmarked, a Bookmarks Panel is available in Acrobat Reader. In the left-hand toolbar, click on the icon that appears to look like a bookmark and the panel opens.

As they relate to PDFs, bookmarks allow a user to quickly navigate between headings of a document. This is beneficial for all users, not just those with disabilities. People who read on tablets are especially fond of bookmarks (or so I’m told) because it allows them to easily find what they’re looking for with just the tap of a screen. People who use screen readers can quickly and easily identify chapter or section headings without having to read the book page-by-page.

In the case of Shaintar, the Table of Contents is also hyperlinked. That means someone can navigate to the TOC and click on any of the entries to jump to the appropriate page of the book. This is simple to set up with Adobe InDesign (see my tutorial on bookmarking and tagging PDFs) and it improves functionality for every user.

The one minor gripe about Legends Arise’s bookmarks is that the main content is buried beneath a heading called “SLA_Screen.” When someone first opens the PDF, their list of available bookmarks includes the front cover, back cover, character sheet, ads, and something referred to as a “Screen.” By clicking the Plus arrow next to SLA_Screen in the Bookmarks Panel, we expand the heading and find the full contents of the book.

It’s important to ensure that all of your bookmarks are labelled in a clear manner to avoid confusion. We can be pretty safe to assume that “SLA_Cover” and “SLA_Back” are the front and back covers, but “SLA_Screen,” to me at least, doesn’t say much. Again, this is a minor complaint, but a little planning about how headings are titled goes a long way.


Legends Arise is a real showcase for how layers can be used to make a PDF more accessible. By clicking the Layers icon in the left-hand toolbar of Adobe Acrobat, we’re given a new panel which shows all of the different options we can toggle on or off as we desire.

An eye icon appears next to each of your options. Clicking the icon makes the eye disappear, and any object placed on that layer go with it.

Legends Arise allows readers to toggle text, graphics, and backgrounds. It’s important to note that backgrounds should go on their own layer, as in this example, because it allows the user to make the text more legible without making the pretty pictures vanish.

Toggling the Background Layer

Many fantasy games love to use parchment backgrounds because it gives an old-fashioned aesthetic to their books. Unfortunately, parchment backgrounds make text difficult to read for people with contrast issues; black text on a brown background (or, if you use a program which inverts the brightness of a document, white text on a bright blue background) is hard for some people to read.

Legends Arise uses a parchment background, but also gives us the option to turn it off. By doing so, we now have a high contrast black-on-white (or white-on-black) document that is crisp, clear, and easy to read.

Background On

Background Off

Toggling Graphics

In the case of Legends Arise, a symbol is used to visually indicate liner notes. The symbol is neat, but it adds a grey overlay to the text that can be difficult for many users to read. Again, thanks to the layers, we can toggle it off with the click of a button or the tap of a finger.

Graphics Off

With both the background and graphics layer turned off, we have a pretty boring looking page, but boring’s okay when readability is the top concern.

Tagged Documents

Recall from the bookmarking and tagging tutorial that tags tell a PDF how the text flows from one column to the next. Those tags then tell screen readers in which order the text on a page should be read.

Legends Arise is not a tagged PDF. When I run an Accessibility Quick Check through Acrobat Pro, I get a message that says “This document has a logical structure but is not a Tagged PDF. Some accessibility information may be missing.”

Thankfully, Acrobat Reader has some powerful features which can attempt to tag a document for people who use assistive technology. How successful Acrobat is at doing this depends on the document’s structure, but thankfully Legends Arise has a nice, clean, two-column layout that is easy for Acrobat to detect.

Sidebars and Box Text

One of the things that really sets Legends Arise apart is its lack of sidebars and text boxes. Acrobat has an easy time of tagging the document because the pages aren’t cluttered with floating text boxes and the like.

When Legends Arise wants to set aside some text, they mark a paragraph as “Liner Notes.” The icon I toggled off in the graphics section above helps to graphically set that block of text apart from the rest of the document, but the Liner Notes paragraphs are also indented slightly on both sides to further set them apart visually.

The result is a clean side note that has a function similar to box text, but doesn’t break the flow of the page (see last weeks’ post about document flow). Visually, the liner notes stand out. They’re not actually kept in stand-alone boxes that are inserted into random parts of the text, though; they simply continue to flow with everything else. Designers take note: this is the way to go.

White Space

Finally, Legends Arise isn’t afraid to use a bit of white space if it means not breaking paragraphs onto more than one page. If you’re able to see the screen shots I’ve inserted above, you’ll note a large amount of white space at the bottom of the right column. There isn’t a missing graphic there; the book starts a new section on the next page, and it’s pretty clear the designers didn’t want to chop it into bits just to fill that space.

Room for Improvement

Legends Arise isn’t perfect. The document isn’t tagged (but like we discussed, at least it’s structured in a way that makes Acrobat’s auto-tagging features have an easy time of it) and there are circumstances where graphics didn’t make it to the intended layer, such as the Liner Notes graphic on page 87.

The book is also watermarked, which poses small issues with screen readers. When reading by sight, watermarks are unobtrusive and easy to ignore, but they still show up as text on a page that a screen reader will attempt to read. How would you like it if you had to read “Jacob Wood order number five million two hundred fifty-one thousand two hundred fifty-seven” after every page?

I understand (but don’t’ agree with) the use of watermarks and don’t blame publishers for using them. I only point this out as one accessibility consideration.

Final Thoughts

As I talk about creating layers next week, I’ll discuss a few techniques I’ve developed to make sure stray pictures don’t remain on the text layer. It’s an issue I’ve been guilty of myself on more than one occasion, but during a recent layout project I did for Dreamscarred Press, I discovered a technique that makes it easy to double-check your document before exporting it from InDesign.

Shaintar: Legends Arise is a fantastic example of an accessible PDF. It does most things right, and those it doesn’t quite catch are minor quibbles at worst. Huge kudos to Evil Beagle Games and the Savage Mojo team for putting together this upstanding book.

Oh, and it’s an awesome setting, too!


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