Setting up a heading structure in InDesign for accessibility

Something that’s different in InDesign from Word is that in MS Word you already have predefined Heading level styles in the Home ribbon whereas in InDesign you have to set up your own ‘Paragraph Styles’ and map them to a Heading structure. You can follow the directions found in this workflow for creating accessible PDFs from InDesign article to setup a template InDesign document with a structure. Here’s an example template exported to PDF. For an InDesign template for graphic designers, it might be good to have Paragraph Styles predefined and maybe have an XML document structure predefined based on text frames they most commonly use. Penn State also has some good information about accessibility and InDesign in this article: Accessibility at Penn State | InDesign Accessibility (

What you setup in the InDesign Structure panel becomes what you see in the Tags panel in Acrobat. The tags in PDF are very similar to HTML with a few odd differences. For example there’s a general <L> tag for all lists instead of <ul> and <ol> (unordered lists and ordered lists) tags. InDesign can also export to ePub format which is more like regular HTML.

Set the tab order in InDesign:

The structure created in the InDesign Articles panel is exported to the PDF file, but it is not automatically set as the order followed when tabbing through interactive elements like hyperlinks and form fields.

  • If the tab order fails in Acrobat, you can right-click on the issue and choose ‘Fix’. This sets the tab order to match the document structure that you set up in InDesign.
  • You can view and adjust the reading order in the Order panel (looks like a Z icon in the left panels).
  • If the panels aren’t there you can open them by going to: View > Show/Hide > Navigation Panes > Page Thumbnails
view and adjust the tab order in the tab order panel

To get to the Tab Order Panel in Acrobat, click the Z icon in the left panels.


How to Export to PDF:

In InDesign, when you are ready to export to an accessible PDF, go to: File > Export > PDF

  • Choose Adobe PDF (Interactive) if your document contains forms, buttons, audio, or video or Adobe PDF (Print) format if it doesn’t.
  • Check the Tagged PDF box to ensure you document structure and tags are exported.
  • Then save the document and open it in Acrobat Pro to check for any accessibility issues.
Export to PDF settings - create tagged PDF

In the export PDF settings in InDesign, check the Tagged PDF box to ensure you document structure and tags are exported in the PDF output.


Three things to do in Acrobat after you export your InDesign document to PDF:

  • Assign a document language
  • Set PDF tab order to ‘use document structure’
  • Run the accessibility checker
  • View and adjust the order in the Tab Order Panel
view and adjust the tab order in the tab order panel

Screen of the Tab Order Panel in Acrobat where you can adjust the PDF document tab order.


Find out more in the workflow for creating accessible PDFs from InDesign article.

Steps to better structure an InDesign document to promote accessibility

Better structure in PDF documents helps readers with visual disabilities and also has SEO benefits. HTML document structural concepts are now pervasive across many formats like Word & PDF so it’s important for content authors/contributors to be familiar with methods of doc structuring. Adding paragraph styles for heading and specifying heading tags can aid in better structuring an InDesign document to promote document accessibility. Adding alternative text descriptions to all photos in a document is another important practice to enhance accessibility.

Create Paragraph Styles:

Go to the ‘Window > Styles > Paragraph Styles’ panel to start setting up paragraph styles for your normal paragraphs and heading levels (such as H1, H2, and H3). There is typically just one heading level 1, H1, in a page as the page title. A normal paragraph is typically nested within one or more headings.
To create a new paragraph style for a heading:
– Add a text frame with the size and font style you want for that level of heading. Heading 1s typical have the largest font size.
– In the ‘Paragraph Style’ panel choose ‘New Paragraph Style’ from the arrow menu.
– Give it a name like ‘Heading 4 Style’. It takes on the font style characteristics of the text frame you had select.
To give a normal paragraph text frame a heading style select that frame and click on one of the heading styles you created.

Setup Structural Tags:

To setup structural tags in your InDesign document:
– Go to ‘View > Utilities > Tags’ to open the Tags panel.
– Choose ‘New Tag’ from the arrow menu.
– Give the tag a name like ‘H4’.
To tag a heading frame (frame with a heading paragraph style applied):
– Select the heading text frame.
– Click the heading tag (such as H4) you want it to be in the tags panel from the heading tags you created. You will be able to see which text frame have tags applied in the ‘View Structure’ panel.
Other tag-related tips:
– Go to ‘View > Structure > View Structure’ to view the document hierarchy structure branching off from the ‘Root’.
– Go to ‘View > Structure > Show Tagged Frames’ to visually color-code your tagged frames. In my example document, H1s were red, H2s were green, and H3s were blue. Normal paragraphs, P, were just light gray.

Adding Alt Text to Images in InDesign:

It’s important for all photos in a document to have alternative text descriptions. You can add alternative text to images, graphics, or photos by using the ‘Object Export Options’ panel.
To add alternative text to an image in InDesign:
– Select the object/photo that you want to add alternative text to.
– Go to:’Object > Object Export Options’
– Enter alternative text for the object/photo you selected in the ‘Alt Text’ tab. It’s possible to set custom alt text for an image or choose text from a structural tag previously applied.
– Choose ‘Custom’ from the menu to enter custom alternative text for the photo.
Document accessibility related panels in InDesign

Document accessibility related panels in InDesign