About Document Accessibility

The Case Against PDFs

A pile of paper

When converting your office documents to PDF for distribution, it’s important to consider if PDF is the best choice. Compared to HTML, for example, PDF documents are harder to use and maintain. PDFs are useful in certain cases, like completing government forms, but be sure to understand the limitations of PDF files.[1]

Here’s a summary of some problems with PDFs:

  • PDFs are not designed for reading on screens. Unlike a responsive website that will allow content to resize to fit different devices and browsers, a PDF is static and not designed to be flexible in layout. Also, reading a PDF on smaller device may require additional scrolling (both horizontal and vertical) as well as zooming, which may be a frustrating user experience.
  • PDFs are harder to access. Even if you create a fully accessible PDF (properly structured and tagged with alt text and so on), it’s still possible that the PDF will not meet the accessibility needs of all users and the assistive technologies that they use. Providing content in HTML, for example, would allow users to copy and paste text easily. Users with low-vision would be able to to adjust text size and colour contrast in their browser settings to make content easier to read.
  • PDF use is harder to track and update. If analytics are important to you, PDFs might not be the way to go. You can track the number of times that a PDF file is downloaded, but not which content was accessed most or which links were followed. If content is locked into a PDF, it may be harder to revise and less likely to be kept up-to-date.

Before choosing to distribute your content as a PDF, consider your audience and how they will use the content:

  • Will they be downloading and using the PDF for offline use only? If so a PDF file is a viable option.
  • Do you need to track how people use the content? Then, it may be easier to provide your content in HTML.
  • Is the content robust and require special training to make the PDF accessible? It may be best to provide the content in several formats, not just PDF, to make it easier for users to read and use.

We recommend considering HTML instead of or in addition to PDF where appropriate. While PDF accessibility has improved over the years, accessibility support for PDF by authoring tools, viewers and assistive technologies (e.g., screen readers) is not as widespread as for HTML documents.


  1. Why GOV.UK Content Should Be Published in HTML and Not PDF - UK Government Digital Service. https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2018/07/16/why-gov-uk-content-should-be-published-in-html-and-not-pdf/.

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Understanding Document Accessibility by The Chang School, Ryerson University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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