PDF Accessibility Checkers: Correcting the Myths

Handouts Media

Presented at 2:15pm in Penrose 1 on Thursday, November 9, 2023.



  • Karen McCall, Accessible Document Design Consultant and Educator, Karlen Communications
  • Bevi Chagnon, President and Founding Partner, PubCom—Accessible Design + Publishing, PubCom.com

Session Details

  • Length of Session: 1-hr
  • Format: Lecture
  • Expertise Level: Beginner
  • Type of session: General Conference


We’ve all used PDF accessibility checkers as part of a quality assurance process. This session explores the fallacies of depending on these tools to define an accessible PDF. While most PDF accessibility checkers check against the ISO 14289 accessibility standard (or PDF/UA), this is a confusing standard. This session looks at what parts of accessibility checkers are relevant to the accessibility of a PDF and which parts are not.


We’ve all depended on accessibility checkers to help ensure that PDFs are accessible for those with disabilities. We generally use these tools throughout the process of making, validating and remediating PDFs for accessibility. We also generally accept that ISO 14289 (or PDF/UA) is the benchmark standard to ensure the accessibility of PDFs. However, this standard is confusing at best. The PDF standard comprises specifications for software developers or programmers to use to create PDFs. The standard was not created for content creators or those using adaptive technology. On the other hand, WCAG does guide content creators in how to build HTML-based content, but WCAG is missing success criteria for word-processed, presentation or spreadsheet content. In this session, we’ll take a look at what portions of the PDF standard are relevant for accessibility and which ones aren’t. We’ll also explore what’s missing from the standards and how accurate the accessibility checkers are. We’ll look at the differences between these standards, the error messages from checkers, and how they determine whether a document is accessible or not.In the end, it is up to the “humans” reviewing the PDFs that determine how accessible a PDF is…not just the standards and the accessibility checkers.


  1. Understanding the results of PDF accessibility checkers can save time in remediation.
  2. Understanding the relationship between PDF/UA and WCAG can make PDF remediation easier
  3. Understanding the gaps in automated PDF accessibility checkers helps with the human review of PDFs

Disability Areas

All Areas

Topic Areas

Accessible Course Design, Accessible Educational Materials, Uncategorized, Universal Design for Learning

Speaker Bio(s)

Karen McCall

Karen McCall, M.Ed. has been working in the field of accessible document design since 1999. She began her career in website accessibility and auditing and moved to accessible Word, PowerPoint and PDF documents in 2004. Karen is:

A Canadian delegate of the ISO 14289 or PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility) committee and has been for a number of years. A Canadian delegate to the ISO 32000 PDF committee. A Microsoft MVP for Word (Most Valued Professional) since 2009. A Microsoft Accessibility MVP since 2017 when this category of MVP was established.

Karen has written several books on the topic of accessible document design for Word, PowerPoint and PDF documents as well as smaller publications with specific techniques for working with Office applications if you are using adaptive technology and/or the keyboard.

Karen is the president of Karlen Communications.

Bevi Chagnon

Bevi Chagnon (ADS, MBA, AIGA) is a professional educator and former faculty member at Washington DC-area colleges/universities; Award-winning magazine art director with a deep background in academic publishing; A US delegate to the ISO for the PDF and PDF/UA standards; and a consultant and trainer for accessible documents and media.