Which is More Accessible: Word or PDF?

woman working at a laptop on a desk

For many creators, creating a document to place on the website comes with many challenging questions. One of the biggest questions is between using Word documents or using PDF. Although it boils down to a personal choice, there are some key differences for both your website and a potential reader.

PDFs tend to be more accessible for most documents posted on a website. However, most mobile devices do not support the tagging structure that allows a PDF to be accessible.  Microsoft Word is more accessible via mobile, but documents with more detailed formatting will have to be redesigned to allow for accessibility on mobile or PC. 

Although there are no clear rules on what you can and cannot use, you want to make your website as user-friendly as you possibly can. By using PDFs, you are eliminating the need for any expensive software. Let’s talk about the pros and cons of using both Word and PDFs on your website.

Which Should You Use for an Accessible Document, Word, or PDF?

For many years, Microsoft Office was the leading office software on any computer. Not only was it easy to use, but it was easy to share what you created as well. PDFs are nothing new, but they are becoming more and more valuable and vital as more and more users are moving away from PCs or even Microsoft products.

With the rise of uploading information to the internet, Word documents and PDFs have been at battle. Some users prefer to use Word documents on their websites, while others swear by PDFs when it comes to sharing on their websites.

Why Many Say That PDFs Are More Accessible

PDFs are preferred for online website accessibility because they are considered independent documents from the software used to develop them.

The accessibility of a PDF allows those with disabilities to understand the content based on a series of hierarchies and the context’s overall presentation. 

One of the main reasons people choose to use Word documents is because they are more familiar with the process or unsure how to make a PDF. Fortunately, there are many various resources available online to convert your documents to PDF to make them more accessible to your readers.

Man checking a PDF on his phone to see how accessible it isHow Do I Make a Document More Accessible?

No matter what platform you decide to use, making a document more accessible is a great way to ensure that your content works for everyone who wants to read it. You can take specific steps to ensure that there is better comprehension of what you want to convey in whatever you are creating.

By using various editing tools, you can easily make your document more accessible:

  • Headings
  • Formatting
  • Hyperlinks
  • Designated SEO practices

By following accessibility-enhancing formatting practices, only will a user have a clearer understanding of what your content is about, but it is better for certain marketing practices that you may use on your website or for organic search results.

Both Word documents and PDFs offer the ability to become more accessible by making just a few changes when creating content or editing. PDFs tend to have the upper hand in creating documents to share on websites simply because you can insert hyperlinks and different content formats on one page.

Pros and Cons of Using Word Documents

Microsoft Word is one of the most used programs on any computer. It is used in professional settings, academic work, and even leisure. Even though it is such a well-loved program, there are clear pros and cons of using the software to create website-accessible documents.


  • Easy to use for beginners to learn and use.
  • Basic editing tools allow you to create content to look a certain way.
  • You can easily insert different images and process basic documents.
  • Offers different templates to make it easy for the user.
  • Works seamlessly with other Microsoft Office programs.


  • Difficult for those who may travel or be on-the-go a lot.
  • The templates can actually cause your content to look too familiar.
  • Specific languages may be limited due to text and symbols.
  • Auto-formatting may not be what you want it to be.

Business woman working from home on laptopPros and Cons of Using PDF Documents

PDFs have taken the internet by storm, especially for those who share their content online. Not only are they easy to create, but they work with many various programs. One of the biggest reasons PDFs are not exclusively used is because many users do not know how to use them properly.

Here are some pros and cons of using PDFs. 


  • It can be opened on almost any device using various programs.
  • Most computers come with PDF reading software already installed.
  • Very compact and easy to store.
  • Customizable settings to reduce the chance of unauthorized changes.


  • It can be difficult or costly to make any changes to PDF files.
  • It can only be edited with specialized programs.
  • They are often seen as images instead of text documents.
  • It can be difficult to convert from existing formats.

Are All PDFs Accessible?

Even though PDFs may seem like the ultimate choice, not all PDFs are created equal. A PDF is only considered to be accessible if it can be seen and accessed by everyone, including those with disabilities. There are specified guidelines that determine if a PDF file is considered to be accessible.

When are Word Documents Preferable to a PDF?

Depending on the industry you work in, you may actually run into Word docs being preferred over a PDF. That is when you are sharing documents that you may want others to be able to edit.

However, when you are posting a document to a website, you don’t want anyone to edit it. So, going with a protected PDF and making it accessible is, by far, the best way to go with posting a document online. 

Can a Screen Reader Read a PDF?

Even if you take the time to create an accessible PDF, it is not guaranteed to work seamlessly with your document. Most of the time, screen readers and PDFs were not designed to work together in the first place. This can cause errors in the document as a whole and are often a result of not preparing for the document to be accessible.

However, a good-quality PDF, when used in conjunction with the professional version of Adobe Acrobat, can perform an optical character recognition (OCR) performed to make most documents useable with a screen reader.

How to Turn a Word Doc into an Accessible PDF

If you prefer to create your document in Word and then turn it into an accessible PDF, it is relatively easy.

Follow these simple steps:

  1. Head to File, then “Save As,” and choose PDF from your options.
  2. While saving your document, head to “Options” and check “Document structure tags for accessibility.”
  3. For Mac users, you will want to select “Best for Electronic Distribution and Accessibility” under the “Options” category.

woman gazing out into the distance while sitting on a couch with a laptop on her lapHow Do I Know if My Document is Accessible?

If this is your first time making an accessible document, it may be hard to know if yours has been saved that way. Luckily, Adobe Acrobat, there is an accessibility quick check under the tools pane. You will find out if your document is accessible and the tags that exist as well.

Additionally, Adobe Acrobat Pro has a complete check that you can perform. This can be found in the accessibility panel.

Here are the steps to perform a full accessibility check on your document in Acrobat Pro. 

  • Select “Create Accessibility Report and Create Comments”
  • Select all items you want the test to check for.
  • Choose “Start Checking”
  • Note any errors or changes found on your end report.

Final Thoughts

Not only is creating accessible documents a great way to ensure that your content reaches everyone it should, but that those people are also included. With so many ways to create accessible documents and ensure that they are meeting the accessibility guidelines established, there is no reason not to take a few additional steps.

Both Word documents and PDFs can be created as accessible documents and be able to be changed if need be. When deciding which is more accessible for your needs, it boils down to your comfort level with specific software, the audience you are creating for, and your push to work with accessibility guidelines.

If you’re looking for a company to help you with your ADA compliance needs, White Whale Web Designs specializes in all ADA website compliance concerns, and can help you bring your WordPress website into full ADA compliance. Otherwise, if you want to tackle ADA compliance for your website, make sure to check out our resource page.

Aaron Day

I've been designing and building sites since 2001, with an emphasis on usability, including website accessibility. Besides helping our clients achieve ADA and 508 compliance, I try to share my knowledge on the subject to others so that the overall internet can be more accessible to all!

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