Improving PDF Accessibility Tools In STEM Fields

Aravind Jembu Rajkumar, Jonathan Lazar
Trace Center, HCIL, College of Information Studies


Portable Document Format (PDF) is used throughout many different work domains, including law, finance, and government. These PDF files, when not tagged and marked up properly, are often inaccessible for people with disabilities. Accessibility requirements for PDF files include properly filling out document properties, alternative text provided for images, having a correct tab order, table headers, tagging heading text with appropriate heading tags, annotating all hyperlinks and bookmarks,  and having default language information in the PDF file. There are different sets of guidelines for PDF accessibility, including those from Adobe and the PDF U/A standard (known as “Matterhorn Protocol”). These PDF accessibility guidelines are not well-known, compared to guidelines such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which are used by governments around the world.

The main reason why so many PDF files remain inaccessible, is that the tools for creating fully accessible PDF files are insufficient. The primary tool that can both fully evaluate a PDF file for accessibility and remediate the accessibility problems is Adobe Acrobat DC/Pro, the full version, which very few people have access to. There are a number of free tools for evaluating the accessibility of PDF files (such as PAC3), but only one free tool, PAVE ( currently exists for remediating the files.

PDF format is frequently used for scientific papers, which are published in digital libraries, such as the ACM Digital Library, IEEE Xplore Digital Library, and the AIS Digital Library (all of which are within computing). Due to the complex nature of research papers in the STEM fields, it has been reported that PDF papers on STEM topics are often the least accessible, despite the fact that there are many existing solutions (such as MathML for making formulas accessible). When research articles in PDF format are not accessible, it creates barriers for students with disabilities entering STEM fields, and barriers for practitioners with disabilities already within STEM fields. There is a key missing link in this process: it is unknown what STEM researchers and practitioners, the ones creating the STEM content, need in terms of tools to assist them in creating PDF files with fully accessible content.

Research Methods

To learn more about what STEM researchers and practitioners need to help make their PDF documents accessible, we are using a multi-method approach. This research involves the use of surveys, interviews, and usability testing with those who work in STEM fields. The surveys and interviews focus on the needs of STEM researchers and practitioners, and the usability testing involves the one existing free tool, PAVE. Currently, we have the University of Maryland Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for data collection using all three research methods in the USA. We have created partnerships with researchers in Switzerland and Ireland, and their participation and data collection, is currently pending approval from the IRB.

We have already completed pilot studies on our methods, with involving 4 individuals involved with STEM piloting the survey, 4 individuals involved with STEM piloting the interview script, and 4 individuals involved with STEM piloting the usability testing method. We will present preliminary data at the HCIL Symposium.


The work reported in this publication was supported, in part, by grant number 90RE5027 (Universal Interface & Information Technology Access RERC) from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services.

Grantees undertaking projects with government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official policy of the Federal government.