What is a tagged PDF?

Woman in headphones using a laptop at a sunny window.

“Tagged PDF” doesn’t seem like a life-changing term. But for some, it is. For people who are blind or have low vision and use assistive technology (such as screen readers and connected Braille displays) to access information, an untagged PDF means they are missing out on information contained in the document because assistive technology cannot “read” untagged PDFs.  Digital accessibility has opened up so many avenues to information that were once closed to people with visual disabilities, but PDFs often get left out of the equation.  Tagged PDFs can mean the difference between accessing information and being unable to do everyday digital tasks like checking your bank balance, viewing your statement of benefits from your healthcare provider, accessing college materials, and shopping online.

Why are we still using PDFs if they aren’t accessible?

A PDF is a portable document file.  This file type maintains its appearance and remains secure no matter what device or platform is used to access the content.  Because of this, PDFs are commonly used to provide information from government agencies, banks, insurance companies, colleges and universities, and many other organizations. But people who use assistive technology need the help of tags to convey digital content and access all the information conveyed in the digital document.  They need a tagged PDF. 

How do people who are blind read PDFs?

People who cannot see a computer screen (or smartphone, or tablet) have to use other methods to read what is contained in a PDF. They use tools such as programs that read aloud (JAWS, NVDA, Voiceover, and Talkback are some of these) or connected Braille displays that convert the text on the screen into Braille. They use special gestures (such as various types of swipes across the screen on a smartphone or tablet) or equipment (like a connected Braille display) to input text into form fields, click buttons, or type on digital devices.  While most users can see the text on buttons, and view images, diagrams, and see changes in font, color, or formatting to denote headings, links, or navigation cues in content, people who use assistive technology need more.  Tags explain to the assistive technology, which relays that info to the end-user, what each of those elements are and how they relate to the rest of the page.

What are tags?

“Tags” are bits of digital code attached to elements of a document, file, or website that convey additional information to assistive technology users (and also to other programs such as artificial intelligence or adjunct applications).  These digital “tags” may contain a small amount of information such as a label that tells the user “this element is a clickable button” or a lot of information such as detailed alternative text to describe a complex diagram.  Most often they are to identify the element and used to denote what the content is intended to do.  

What kinds of “tags” are there?

A tagged PDF contains many different types of tags, but those most commonly used are text, alternative text (alt-text for images), headings, links, and link descriptions. There are also more complex sets of tags such as those contained in tables and lists.  List tags the list itself, the list labels (such as numbers or bullets), and the list items.  Tables are made up of tags that denote each row and column, as well as the individual cells and any header rows and columns.  Lists and tables must also contain tags that tell assistive technology users the relationship between all of these elements.  Such as, this table cell belongs to row 2, column 4; or this is list item #2, and is a subset of item #C from the parent list.  Depending on the complexity of the document and its elements, there may be only a few different kinds of tags, or there may be many. 

How do tags work?

For the most part, tags tell the assistive technology user what is on the page.  Things like alt text for images and labels for buttons simply allow the user to get all the information contained in the tagged PDF.  But some tags, like headings and links, allow the assistive technology user to navigate the document.  A sighted person will use headings and links (anchor links or table of contents links in particular) to skim through a document to find the content that is of interest to them.  A person using assistive technology uses heading tags to jump through the PDF too.  Additionally, with a correctly tagged PDF, assistive technology users will be told that a list contains, for example, 10 items and that there are 3 child list items under item #4.  A correctly tagged PDF will allow assistive technology users to access a table and understand that it contains 4 columns and 3 rows and which cells correspond to each row and column. 

How do assistive technology users make use of tags?

Assistive technology tools can be set to navigate a document in a few ways.  One is simply to read through every piece of content on the page.  But this can be time-consuming if you are looking for a specific piece of information (such as your “amount due” on a billing statement, or the terms and conditions on a software license agreement.) Assistive technology has settings that allow the user to read only the headings or only the links on a page.  This equates to a sighted person skimming down the bolded headings in a document or using the table of contents with active links to skip to the information they need. If a button doesn’t contain a digital tag labeling it as “Submit button” or form fields do not contain clear tooltips, the functionality can be obscured for an assistive technology user.  If a list doesn’t contain the correct digital tags explaining how the items are related, it will read simply as a wall of words, with no context.  Tables will have the same issue – reading the contents of a table without knowing what rows and columns the information relates to makes it incomprehensible. 

How do I “tag” a PDF?

Man using Equidox software to remediate PDFs.In order to digitally tag a PDF, you will need to start with the source program.  Whether your document is created in MS Word, Google Sheets, InDesign, or other programs, you should include accessibility features such as alt text, headings, and descriptive links.  But once that document is “saved as PDF” (never, ever use “print to PDF”), you will still need to review the document and make sure all the necessary digital tags are applied and functional.  For this, you need remediation software. There are a number of tools out there to do this, but Equidox PDF remediation software is one of the fastest and easiest to use.  It incorporates machine learning smart detection tools to automate some of the more complex tasks (such as lists and tables) and is designed for pro remediators or beginners alike and offers free training and support. 

Tagged PDFs are Accessible PDFs

Whether you are creating accessible content or updating your documents to ensure accessibility after the fact, tagged PDFs are probably going to be part of the process.  As one of the most ubiquitous document types, tagged PDFs need to be included in your accessibility plan. If you need a quick, easy, and accurate way to tag your PDFs, contact us.

 Further reading

For more information about tagging PDFs, check out these articles:

Need help tagging your PDFs?   Contact us!  We’ll be glad to help you get started or have our experts do it for you.


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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."