Accessible PDF Education

As a student with disability, how to navigate an Accessible PDF textbook?

A student with headphones writing notes in her book

Portable Document Format (PDF) is the preferred format for publishing and distributing digital documents across the globe. This is true for text books as well. Educational institutes, universities, elearning providers, schools and colleges are using PDF as the preferred format for distributing text books to their students.

Accessible PDF text books are high on demand and educational institutes, universities, elearning course providers are taking the initiative to make the text books available to students with disabilities in an accessible PDF format!

So I decided to write a blog from a student with disability’s perspective on how they can go about accessing these text books!

Acrobat Reader DC

It all starts with the PDF reader that is used to access the PDF files and it is available for different operating systems, such as Windows, Mac, iOS, Android etc.

Acrobat Reader DC has several in-built accessibility features and is compatible with third-party assistive technologies as well!

For the purpose of this blog, we will be working with Acrobat Reader DC on Windows operating system.

A text book holds lots of information and students generally want to read one or at the max two chapters at a time.

The first thing a student wants in an accessible text book is navigation!

So what are the options?


An accessible PDF text book is capable of providing multiple options to navigate. Students with disabilities can navigate using a keyboard, screen reader, screen magnifier etc.:

  • Table of contents: use the table of content links in order to jump to different chapters as well as sub-sections of the chapter quickly.
  • Bookmarks: use the bookmarks pane to jump to different sections of the text book quickly. This is handy if the table of content section does not comprise of links. To access bookmarks:
    • Go to View menu
    • Click on Show/Hide sub-menu
    • Click on Navigation pane sub-menu
    • Click on Bookmarks
Screenshot showing the Bookmark Pane.
  • Go to page: If you are aware of the page number that you wish to access, then use Go To Page dialog (Ctrl + Shift + N) to jump to a specific page.
Screenshot showing Go To Page dialogue.

Once navigation is sorted, the next important aspect is the content of the text book!

Content is king and it is even more important as far as a text book is concerned. A text book’s content consists of:

  • Topics and sub-topics tagged using headings
  • Textual content displayed using paragraphs, lists, tables etc.
  • Non-textual content, such as informative and decorative images, diagrams, graphs etc.
  • Reference resources often presented as hyperlinks


Headings are used in an accessible text book to help students understand the content structure. For students with visual impairments, headings also serve as an important means of navigation. All the screen readers provide users with an option to jump from one heading to another as well as access all the headings of a document. Students can use any of the option and access the content that they wish to read.

Press Insert + F6 with JAWS to pull up the list of headings!

Screenshot showing Heading List dialog.

Press Insert + F7 with NVDA to pull up the list of headings!

Screenshot of "Element List" dialog

Tip: Press H or Shift + H to jump to the next and previous heading.

Once on a heading, students can press the Up or Down arrow to read the content.


Text books comprise of lots of lists and nested lists. Students with visual impairments can read lists as well as jump from one list to another. A screen reader will inform students about beginning/end of a list, list item prefix (bullets or numbers) as well as read out the list item content.

Similar to headings, students can access the lists using the shortcut key L or read through the content using the Up or Down arrow keys.


Tabular content is used in different parts of a text book. Tabular content is often found difficult to interpret by students with visual impairments. An accessible text book helps address this issue and provides students with lots of option to access the tabular content. Both JAWS and NVDA leading Windows based screen readers provide users with different methods to access tabular content in a PDF document.

Students can jump to a table, read one cell at a time, listen to the table headers, read entire row, read entire column and even jump to a cell. Keyboard commands for accessing tables using JAWS and NVDA can be found at:

Cheat Sheet – Screen reader commands for JAWS, NVDA – PDF

Non-text content

A text book comprises of lots of images. These images can be either decorative or informative and even diagrams etc. In an accessible PDF text book, textual descriptions are added for informative images as well as diagrams and graphs, whereas decorative images are tagged as an artifact due to which students using screen readers can skip them.

Students with visual impairments cannot access the image in their native format and they rely on textual description in order to access the information conveyed using images. Screen readers provide students with an option to access these descriptions by pressing a keystroke.

A screen reader will identify the image as a Graphic and then read out the textual description specified.

Screenshot showing Select a Graphic dialog

Tip: Press G or Shift + G to jump to the next and previous graphic/image in a document.


Reference resources are often included in a text book and a hyperlink for the same is provided. In an accessible text book, students can navigate to the links using a keyboard, mouse, screen reader, screen magnifier etc. Students can press Tab and Shift + Tab to navigate between links and press Enter to activate them.

Apart from reference resources section, links are also used in Table of contents, Index, footnotes, endnotes etc. sections of a text book.

Having gone through different options that students with disability have for reading accessible PDF text book with a keyboard and screen reader, now let’s find out about few other access options.

Additional Access Methods

Following are some other methods in which students with disabilities can read content of an accessible PDF text book:

  • Reflow: Students can opt to access the text book in a Reflow view. By selecting the Reflow option, content of the PDF document is displayed in a linear format – single column. This is found very helpful by students with low vision as they do not need to scroll horizontally in order to read the content. Press Ctrl + 4 or click on View>Zoom>Reflow to turn on Reflow.
Screenshot showing content when reflow mode is tuned on.
  • Read Out Loud: Acrobat Reader DC provides students with an option to read the text book with Read Out Loud. Students can have the text read out to them including textual description for images. Read Out Loud is not a screen reader and makes use of the available voices installed on the computer to read the text. Click on View>Read Out Loud>Activate Read Out Loud to activate Read Out Loud. Students have options to read current page, read entire document till the end, pause as well as stop with Read Out Loud.
Screenshot showing Object Properties dialog .

Accessible PDF text books have truly enhanced the reading experience for students with disabilities!

Need help with making your PDF accessible? Write to us at

By Priti Rohra

Chief Accessibility Officer