Accessible PDFs with InDesign Alternatives

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series Tutorials


I have offered a lot of tutorials about how to use Adobe InDesign CS6 to make accessible PDFs. It’s industry standard for a reason, but it’s also really expensive. Even with the new, more affordable Creative Cloud option, InDesign can seem out of reach for a small press publisher who’s on a budget.

In “How to Choose Layout Software,” I mentioned a few InDesign alternatives. Scribus is a free and open source layout program that is powerful, if not the most intuitive. Affinity Publisher is a low-cost alternative that isn’t quite as full-featured as InDesign, but it will get the job done for a fraction of the cost. More recently, I discovered LucidPress, a free web-based layout program, as well.

If you’re using one of these alternatives, you shouldn’t feel left out. Though I don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with these programs, I have compiled a list of well-written tutorials that show you how to perform certain important actions, such as manage layers, bookmark your documents, and add document tags.


A free, open source desktop publishing program, Scribus is the software of choice for designers on a budget (after all, it’s hard to beat free). You can get it at


Like other full-featured desktop publishing programs, Scribus supports layers. Here’s a great tutorial on how to manage layers in Scribus.

Help: Manual Layers


(Updated November 5th, 2015)

You can create bookmarks from any text frame in Scribus. Here’s a brief mention on how to do this courtesy of DriveThruRPG (this link downloads a PDF):

Scribus Tutorial PDF from DTRPG

File Export

When exporting a PDF from Scribus, you must ensure that “include bookmarks” and “include layers” are selected. You also need to use PDF 1.5, which is the latest version of the PDF specification that Scribus can export according to this document:

Update November 5th, 2015: The link I previously had to a tutorial no longer exists. Use the DTRPG guide (above) for help on exporting from Scribus.

Tagged PDFs

Sadly, Scribus lacks support for document tagging as of version 1.4. According to some research, it doesn’t look like it’s on the roadmap for future releases yet, either. I don’t want to get into a big discussion about the reasons I’ve read for this being the case, but I had to take a break from the computer after reading some particularly heartless posts from people who I can only hope are not affiliated with the project in any significant way.

Update March 26, 2019

About 3.5 years later and Scribus is still on version 1.4.x. The software still seems to be widely used by publishers on a budget, but it doesn’t appear to be in active development. I am unsure if this program will ever have support for tagging PDFs.

I recently attempted to read a PDF that was produced by Scribus. My screen reader told me every page was an “empty page,” meaning the text was essentially just an image. Without proper OCR software, the PDF is completely unusable by screen readers.

If you are considering using Scribus because it is a cheap alternative to Adobe InDesign, please think again. A solid, inexpensive (not free) alternative is Serif Affinity Publisher(see below).

Serif PagePlus

Update March 12, 2020: PagePlus is now defunct. Serif now has a new program called Affinity Publisher. See below for details. This section remains for historical purposes.

Though I have only used a demo version of Serif PagePlus, I remember liking what I saw. It’s easy to use and packs a lot of features for its $100 price tag. You can even find older versions for significantly less. Get PagePlus from


Not only does PagePlus support layers, it seems to have a lot of features that I don’t even know if InDesign has. Here’s an in-depth tutorial for PagePlus users:

Working with Layers


Like InDesign, PagePlus is capable of generating bookmarks automatically using paragraph styles. Simply create a document using appropriate styles for your Headings, then follow this tutorial:

Creating PDF Bookmarks

Tagged PDFs

Sadly, after a great deal of searching, I have not been able to find a tutorial for tagging documents with PagePlus. If it’s possible, nobody’s talking about it.

Export to PDF

PagePlus is capable of exporting to what they call “web-ready PDFs” (your typical distribution model for digital files) and print-ready PDFs (the PDF-X standard used for printing presses). As with other layout programs, you choose during the export process whether or not to enable the layers and bookmarks you created.

Publishing to PDF (HTML article, appears to be for PagePlus X5)

PagePlus X7 complete user guide


LucidPress is a free, web-based desktop publishing program. I haven’t heard much about it from anyone who has used it, and I’ve only toyed around with a little bit.  Unfortunately, it’s still in Beta and seems to lack a lot of features — especially when it comes to exporting PDFs (see below).

If you’d like to try it, you can find it at


From what I can tell, LucidPress calls layers “overlays.” They appear to behave similar to layers. Here’s a tutorial on how to use them:

Update November 5th, 2015: This tutorial no longer exists. The only mention I can find on LucidPress’s official Tutorials section about Layers is that they do have a Layers tool. There’s no indication of how it’s used or how powerful the feature is.

If you’re curious, here’s the Getting Started with LucidPress Tutorial which briefly mentions layers.

Bookmarking and Tagging

Unfortunately, I cannot seem to find any information about bookmarking or tagging documents with LucidPress.

Export to PDF

As recently as November 2013, there were feature requests for the LucidPress team to implement saving to editable PDF formats, saving layers in PDFs, and performing other routine tasks. As it stands right now, it appears as though LucidPress is not able to export documents in any format other than a flattened (unlayered) PDF with no accessible formatting options, or even the option to edit the PDF in Acrobat to make it more accessible.

Unfortunately, that means LucidPress really isn’t ready to contend with other layout programs. It may be usable for simple flyers and brochures, but it’s not a full-featured design suite capable of handling large or complex files.


Update November 5th, 2015: LucidPress now has the ability (as of February 2015) to export PDFs with editable and searchable text. This doesn’t mean it tags the documents, but at least it allows other programs such as Adobe Acrobat to attempt to tag the document for the user. Prior to February 2015 LucidPress only exported uneditable PDFs.

See this discussion for details. (Update 3/12/2020: this page no longer exists.)

Affinity Publisher

(This section was added 3/12/2020.)

Affinity Publisher by Serif Software is the new player in town. For a one-time purchase of about $50 USD, you can get a powerful desktop publishing suite capable of handling most of what InDesign can do. As of this update, the program has been out of Beta for less than a year and is still under active development. Make sure you follow up with any links to ensure this information is accurate as of the time you access it.

I have spent only a little bit of time getting to know Affinity so far, but I’m mostly pleased with what I’ve seen. It supports layers and bookmarks, but right now I haven’t seen any support for tagged documents. There are various feature requests on Serif’s forums, but those requests date back two years now and I still can’t find any mention from the Affinity team that there are plans to implement this feature.

I also noticed when exporting a simple, image-free PDF from Affinity Publisher that the output didn’t play very nicely with my screen reader. I’m not sure if this is a quirk of my inexperience or an actual flaw with the program.

Here is a list of tutorials for using Affinity Publisher.

Final Thoughts

If you’re using some of the free or low-cost alternatives to InDesign, you can still make your books accessible. Scribus doesn’t make it as easy as PagePlus or InDesign, but it’s free. PagePlus offers a relatively inexpensive alternative to InDesign and it has a lot going for it, but it still seems to lack the ability to generate PDF tags.
LucidPress appears to be an alternative to Microsoft Publisher moreso than Adobe InDesign; it can create flyers and brochures easily enough, but I don’t think I’d even attempt to use it for a long document such as a book.
With any of these programs, you’ll still need to make use of Adobe Acrobat’s accessibility tools to tag documents. Whether you, as a designer, take the time to edit the document yourself or you choose to rely on Acrobat Reader’s ability to generate tags for a user probably depends on whether you have a licsense to the professional version. If you don’t, you’re stuck with leaving it up to the fickle features of Acrobat Reader.
Even if you can’t easily or successfully tag your PDFs, it’s important to do what you can to use layers and legible text choices when creating them. Everyone will thank you for the flexibility and readability of your documents.
Do you use one of these programs and have more insight? Let me know in the comments!

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