Equidox PDF Academy – How to Set Reading Order in PDFs

One of the biggest problems in remediating documents for assistive technology users is setting the reading order in PDFs.  All elements in a PDF document must be correctly tagged, in the correct order, so that assistive technology like screen readers and connected Braille displays can read the document in a logical order.  The last and most important step in remediation is to set the reading order in PDFs

Top-Down and Left to Right are not always correct

The default reading order for a PDF document is top to bottom, left to right.  If a document is designed with multiple columns of text (like a magazine page or brochure), assistive technology can mistakenly read the text across the page without following the correct flow of information, as shown in this sample brochure below. 

PDF of 3 column brochure - reading order is incorrect, jumping across the 3 panels all over the page reading all content left to right, top to bottom without indication of correct reading order. The brochure must have all its elements “tagged” with the correct reading order so that the content will be read in the order intended, as shown in this corrected version below. 

PDF of 3 column brochure with correct reading order reading top to bottom down each column before proceeding right to left.

Make reading order your last step

Often when editing, a content creator will add a paragraph, image, link, or table later in the editing process.  When this happens, sometimes the digital reading order (the sequence in which the computer interprets the elements should be read) is not the same as the visual reading order.  PDF remediation corrects this in order to make the content flow correctly for assistive technology users.  So it is important to check reading order as the very last step, even if it visibly appears that all is correct.

Beware of “Save to PDF”

Even content created with the correct reading order in non-PDF formats can have that reading order disrupted if “saved to PDF.” Use assistive technology to check that the reading order has been preserved.  

Don’t rely on checkers

A document can technically pass an accessibility checker but be completely unusable by assistive technology if the reading order is not accurate. Accessibility checkers can tell you if elements are tagged, or if headings and lists are nested correctly, but they cannot tell you whether the reading order is accurate for any given document.  That requires human intervention.  

One-click Reading Order with Equidox

If you are using Equidox to remediate PDFs, setting the reading order can be done in a single click, whether the order is top-down or multiple columns. Additionally, you can insert an item into the reading order (such as an image that you want before or after text it sits next to) by using decimal places without having to reorder every element on the page.  

To learn more about how to easily remediate PDFs and set Reading Order in one step using Equidox, view our 1-minute text zones video


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Tammy Albee

Tammy Albee | Director of Marketing | Equidox Tammy joined Equidox after four years of experience working at the National Federation of the Blind. She firmly maintains that accessibility is about reaching everyone, regardless of ability, and boosting your market share in the process. "Nobody should be barred from accessing information. It's what drives our modern society."