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Tab and read order in documents

Movement through a web page or application should follow a logical order that matches the visual order of content on the page.

For an overview of this issue, see Tab and read order in our IT Accessibility Checklist.

For most documents, screen readers read from left to right and top to bottom. When creating documents, be aware of this and author content accordingly. For documents that contain content in multiple columns, be sure to test with a screen reader. If you’re unsure how to do this, UW-IT Accessible Technology Services will be happy to do this for you. See Help for more information.

PDF files present unique challenges since they are generated from other software products that may not export content in a logical order for reading.  Techniques for testing and, if necessary fixing, the read order in PDFs depends on whether the PDF is a document or form.

Techniques for PDF documents

In Adobe Acrobat Pro DC, go to View > Tools > Accessibility, and select “Reading Order.” In the Reading Order window, make sure “Show page content groups” and “Page content order” are selected. This feature provides a visual indication of the approximate order in which content will appear if automatically re-purposed for display on a small screen.

Screen shot of the Reading Order, which organizes the page into blocks and displays a number on each block indicating the current read order

Generally, this order is fairly consistent with the read order for screen readers. However, a more accurate test for screen reader order is to check the tag tree, by going to View > Show/Hide > Navigation Pane > Tags.

Adobe Acrobat Pro with Tag Tree exposed

With both of these features in Acrobat Pro, you can modify the read order if items are out of sequence.  In Reading Order, click the “Show Order Panel” button, then drag the various blocks of content into a logical reading order. The process is the same in the Tag Tree: If any items are out of order, simply drag them to their appropriate place in the tree.

Techniques for PDF forms

To test an interactive PDF form, open the form in any desktop PDF reader and move through the form fields by pressing the Tab key. Fields will be highlighted as they receive focus.  If fields are not arranged in the expected sequence, this can be fixed in Adobe Acrobat Pro. Go to View > Tools > Forms > Edit. All form fields will be listed in tab order in a sidebar panel. Simply drag fields to their correct position in the tab order.

screen shot of a form in Adobe Acrobat Pro, with fields listed in incorrect order