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How to access pdfs with a screen reader

The following notes provide some helpful hints to installing, configuring and navigating documents which are pdfs (portable document format) with a screen reader. This document is designed to provide students with ‘quick start’ information. Those who require more detailed guidance can consult The Adobe website. Most Open University e-texts are supplied as pdf. To access them, the Adobe program must be installed on your computer. Because some screen reader users will have some useful residual vision there will be some reference to configuring the Adobe program taking account of font size and colour contrast.

Installing the Adobe program

  1. Either install the Adobe program from the CD supplied by the University or download it from The Adobe website.
  2. Bring up the list of links (insert-F7) for the JAWS screen reader. Press letter a until JAWS says 'accessible Adobe Reader 9 (or a higher version number) download'
  3. Press enter and run the installation program.
  4. Tab through the options selecting “next” several times, and finally, agree to the terms of the license agreement by pressing the 'I agree' button.

The Accessibility Setup Assistant

After the license agreement has been accepted, Adobe Reader will try to detect whether a screen reader and/or a screen magnifier is running. If this is the case, the Accessibility Setup Assistant wizard is shown. Select the options you prefer. If you wish to change any of the options later on, choose the Accessibility Setup Assistant from the Document menu.

The Wizard Accessibility Setup Assistant consists of 4 or 5 screens, depending upon your choice at screen 1. Below all screens are listed.

Screen 1: screen magnifier or screen reader

You can select the values recommended for the use of screen readers or screen magnifiers. First, indicate which assistive technology you use.

There are three choices:

  • Set Options For Screen readers
  • Set Options For Screen magnifiers
  • Set All Accessibility Options

Screen 2: Screen magnifiers

Screen 2 will not be shown if you choose Set Options for Screen readers at screen 1.

Adobe Reader can override the document colours and instead use high contrast in order to make the text more readable. Select the checkbox Use High Contrast Colors for Document Text if you prefer this. With this option you can choose from a list of four contrasting colour combinations for text and background.

  • Green text on black
  • Yellow text on black
  • White text on black
  • Black text on white

Select Disable Text Display Smoothing. This option will make the text brighter and easier to read with a screen magnifier.

The option Default Zoom View enables you to set a default zoom view percentage value at which to magnify documents on the screen. You can either choose a percentage value of the page size or select the Override Page Layout. This option changes the layout of the document text in such a manner that only text is displayed. If you use a screen magnifier, it is recommended to use the Adobe Reader magnification rather than the magnification of a screen magnifier. The Zoom View can magnify a document on screen up to 6400%. The font display is then still excellent.

By default the mouse indicator in Acrobat Reader is represented by a fully open hand. The Hand indicates the basic reading mode. If you select the option Always Use the Keyboard Selection Cursor, the Select tool pointer will be displayed instead. This tool pointer resembles the capital letter I when you point it over text.

Screen 3: Options for reading order

This screen offers choices for setting the reading order of untagged documents.

  • Infer Reading Order from Document (recommended) tells Adobe Reader to infer the reading order from the document by using an advanced method of layout analysis and fonts. You are generally advised to use this option but see below.
  • Left-To-Right, Top-To-Bottom Reading Order.
  • Use Reading Order In Raw Print Stream.

You can select one of the reading orders specified above, instead of using the reading order specified by the structure of a tagged document. This option is useful for poorly tagged PDF documents. Normally this is not necessary and mostly does not solve reading order problems.

Using a checkbox, you can specify whether Adobe Reader should ask to specify the reading order every time an untagged document is opened.

Screen 4: number of loaded pages

This will be discussed in more detail in the “navigation section” as it significantly affects the usability of this program.

The contents of a document can be loaded in parts or entirely to the buffer of a screen reader or a screen magnifier. Since loading large documents may take quite some time, it might be convenient to select one of the options below:

  • Currently Visible Pages.
  • Deliver The Entire Document At Once.
  • Deliver All Pages Only For Small Documents.
  • Maximum Number of Pages In A Small Document. Select this option to set the page number limit at which you want Adobe Reader to load pages. The default number is 50.

Screen 5: save and load documents

Disable Document Auto-Save: During reading, Acrobat Reader auto-saves the document. The screen reader or magnifier has to reload the document. Disabling this function will save time.

Reopen Documents To The Last Viewed Page: With this option you can save the last viewed position. The next time, the document will be opened at that position.

Display PDF Documents In The Web Browser: This option will open PDF documents from the Internet in the web browser, for example Internet Explorer or Firefox, instead of a separate Adobe Reader window. It is recommended to deselect this option, since screen readers or magnifiers do not fully support PDF in a browser. Adobe Reader will give greater control when navigating a document in your screen reader.

(Extract from: Reading PDF with Screen Magnifiers and Screen Readers: ©Viziris 2006)

Navigating documents

The first task, once you have the selected document on screen is to issue the ctrl-shift-6 command which will tell you whether Adobe considers the document accessible.

The second task is to issue the insert-F6 command which informs you whether your screen reader can detect a list of the headings. If so, cursor to the one you want and press enter and start reading. There may be a long list of headings and you can use the tab and cursor keys to select whether you want JAWS to read the entire headings list or simply the headings at a particular level eg level 1.

The crucial option to be aware of is: Read the Entire document or Read visible pages.

You can use the shift-ctrl 5 command to change the reading order of the current document.

If you are unsure how your Adobe installation has been configured then use the alt-d, t (alt-d) for “document” and the letter ‘t’ for the set-up assistant Command.

Tab through to check settings and cursor up/down to choose specific options.

Quick setup for screen reader users

If you have a screen reader, and don’t need to worry about the size or colour of text on screen you can issue the alt-d, t command cursor down once to “set options for screen readers”, tab to “use recommended settings and skip setup”, press the space bar and you will be back in your document.

What you need to be aware of is that the quick installation sets size of document to “for large documents only read the visible pages”. The advantage of this is that your screen reader will install large documents in a much shorter time and your PC is less likely to “hang.” You will need to repeatedly use the ctrl-page down command to continue reading, that is, you will not be able to rely on the JAWS continuous read feature (insert-down arrow).

In addition, the “Quick installation” will always reopen your document where you left it - “Reopen documents to last viewed.”

The disadvantage of the “only read visible pages” setting is that JAWS will not report a list of headings (insert-f6 in documents longer than 50 pages.

Navigating via table of contents and page numbers

If the PDF document is untagged and no identified list of headings announced it may still be possible to accurately move around the document.

Assuming that the electronic document and the print page numbers are synchronised, as is the case with many of the law books, then it is possible to move to a selected section, by selecting this from the table of contents and moving to the page number indicated. Some tips:

  • The Windows key-comma command for “say row” when in a table in Adobe is helpful here.
  • It is complemented by the windows-key-full stop for read an entire column.
  • Moving to page number is achieved via the shift-ctrl-n command. Enter the number required and press enter.

To determine what page you are on and how many pages are in the entire book.

  • Enter the page number command and then
  • Choose ‘route JAWS cursor to the PC Cursor’ via the insert-minus command and
  • Then “read line” via insert and number pad 8 command.

Converting PDF documents to text

Because of the difficulties that many visually impaired students experience with documents in the PDF format they often convert them to text.

A simple way to achieve this is:

  1. Press alt, cursor down to 'save as text' and press enter and follow the prompts.
  2. Unless you specify otherwise the saved document will be in 'My Documents' and can be accessed via the word processing program you use.

Advantages of doing this include:

  • The speedier access of the entire document
  • You can use the Word processor’s capabilities of searching, copying and pasting.

Disadvantages include:

  • Disturbing the original layout
  • Not being able to use the 'tagging' or headings feature of the PDF format.

Customising Acrobat Reader's accessibility settings

This document (pdf 164kb) provides some helpful hints to installing, configuring and navigating documents which are in PDF (portable document format). The document is designed to provide students with ‘quick-start’ information. Those who require more detailed guidance can consult Adobe's site. Most Open University texts are supplied in PDF. To access them, the Adobe Reader program must be installed on your computer.