How to get an accessible PDF out of Google Docs (with free tools)

Today, I learned that Google Docs doesn't save accessible PDFs, even if you conscientiously wrote the doc accessibly. I.e. With the correct heading structure, lists that are actual lists, tables that are tables, figures, captions, alt text, oh my!

Instead, when exporting to PDF, Google Docs strips all accessibility-related information, resulting in an untagged PDF.

This was rather annoying to me, since I absolutely needed this particular document (a VPAT) to be accessible while in PDF form.

Poking around the interwebs, I came to the conclusion that most PDF accessibility remediation tools are one of the following:

  • Paid and expensive
    Adobe Acrobat Pro, I'm looking at you. To be fair, it isn't just Adobe that charges rather a lot.
  • Free, but don't work at all, or don't work very well
    Pave-PDF was an example that didn't work for me at all... even when it finally loaded my document.
  • Free, but insert watermarks, and possibly don't work
    PDFix allowed me to tag my PDF, but I couldn't quite trust that it was working. Especially since PDFix finds "no bugs" with a PDF that... has no tagged content. To be clear, a PDF with no tagged content is not accessible. Plus, it inserts watermarks.
    We'll get back to PDFix in a moment though - it does come in handy.
  • Free, very possibly good, but Windows only
    My work machine is a Mac.

Enough with the complaining - tell me how to get that accessible PDF!

It's really simple, but I didn't find anyone else laying out the exact steps, so here they are. Every article or answer I found assumed access to specific paid tools, which I don't have (MS Word, Acrobat Pro).

  1. Ensure your base Google Doc has been authored accessibly.
    If it isn't, make it so. I.e. use the correct heading structure, add captions to your images, etc. This is 95% of the work, "pre-done", almost. And if you need to fix stuff, it's easiest to fix it in your base Google Doc, rather than attempt it with any free tools.
  2. Export your base Google Doc as a MS Word .doc. Yup.
    Because interestingly enough, when you export a Google Doc as an MS Word file, it preserves all of that tasty tasty accessibility information that you've included.
  3. If you have access to MS Word, open the file, and THEN export it as a PDF.
    According to the interwebs, this should give you a nice, clean, accessible PDF.
  4. If you're like me, and don't have access to MS Word...
    Download the Adobe Acrobat extension for Chrome - it's free.
  5. In Adobe Acrobat extension for Chrome, choose the "Convert to PDF" option, and select your exported MS Word file.
  6. Wait for your file to convert, then download it.
  7. Congratulations! You now have a nice, accessible PDF!

    BUT WAIT... How can you be sure it worked?

  8. On a Mac, right-click your nice (and hopefully) accessible PDF, and "Get info".
  9. Look for "Tagged PDF" - if it says "Yes", it worked!

    But what if you want to look at the tags, to make sure they're all legit?
  10. Download and install PDFix.
    You're not going to use this to fix your PDF (because that'll make watermarks, among other issues), you're going to use it to check your PDF.
  11. Open your file in PDFix, and click on the "Tag" icon.
    This pretty much works exactly the same way as Adobe Acrobat Pro, except that it's free. ;)
  12. Check out the tags in your (hopefully) lovely, accessible PDF. :D