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Optical Character Recognition for Accessibility: A Guide

Access to information is critical in today’s hyper-connected digital business environment.  But accessing and navigating electronic documents can be a challenge for individuals with disabilities.  

More than 1 billion people, or approximately 16 percent of the world’s population, have some form of disability, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which advocates for universal health care globally.  Approximately 2.2 billion worldwide have vision impairment or blindness.

The number of lawsuits related to digital accessibility, including document accessibility, has been increasing steadily in recent years.  In 2023 alone, there were over 4,500 federal and state digital accessibility lawsuits filed in the United States – an increase of approximately 500 lawsuits compared to 2022, according to UsableNet’s year-end report on digital accessibility lawsuits.

Optical character recognition (OCR) helps ensure that every individual, regardless of their abilities, can access and use digital documents, contributing to a more inclusive and equitable environment. 

This article shows you how. 

What is document accessibility and why is it important?

Visual, auditory, cognitive, and physical impairments can make it hard for individuals to effectively access and understand the content of PDFs, Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and other digital documents.  That’s why more organizations are focused on improving document accessibility.  

Document accessibility is important for several reasons: 

  1. Inclusivity.  Document accessibility ensures that everyone, regardless of their abilities, can access and understand the content of electronic documents.  Many organizations recognize their ethical responsibility to respect the rights and dignity of people with disabilities.
  2. Compliance.  Document accessibility helps ensure that organizations comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other legal requirements for document accessibility.
  3. Experience.  Properly structured documents with clear headings, alternative text for images, and a logical reading order are easier to navigate and understand for all users of all abilities.  Making documents more accessible can provide a competitive advantage for organizations. 
  4. Search.  Accessible documents with properly labeled images, descriptive headings, and structured content can potentially improve search engine optimization (SEO) results.   

These are some of the reasons that more organizations are focused on document accessibility. 

What is OCR and how does it work?

OCR can play a big role in helping an organization improve document accessibility. 

The technology analyzes the visual patterns of text characters in scanned paper documents, PDF files, images captured by a mobile device, and other digital documents into machine-readable text.  

Here’s how an OCR solution typically works: 

  • Image capture.  The OCR process starts with the capture of a document image using a high-production scanner or other device.  Some scanners enable users to digitize different types of documents co-mingled and to create bitonal, grayscale, or color images, based on their needs. 
  • Pre-processing.  To improve OCR accuracy, captured images undergo pre-processing to remove noise, adjust brightness and contrast, correct distortions, and eliminate any skew.   
  • Text detection.  The software then analyzes the image to identify patterns and shapes that resemble characters and distinguish them from other document elements such as graphics. 
  • Extraction.  Once the software has identified the parts of the document that contain text, it compares the shapes and patterns of characters against a database of known characters.  The software then reconstructs the text by arranging the recognized characters into words, sentences, and paragraphs based on their spatial relationships within the document.  
  • Post-processing.  Formatting adjustments, the correction of spelling and grammatical errors, and other post-processing steps may be performed to improve the accuracy of OCR results.  
  • Output.  The OCR software outputs text that can be edited, searched, and manipulated. 

These steps enable modern OCR solutions to achieve an extremely high level of accuracy, even with complex documents that may contain multiple fonts, languages, currencies, and formatting styles.  

What are the benefits of using OCR for document accessibility?

There are several ways that OCR helps improve document accessibility. 

  1. Digitization.  OCR software enables organizations to convert and extract the content in books, articles, handouts, and other printed materials into editable and searchable text files.
  2. Extraction.  OCR software can convert text from printed documents into accessible versions that are compatible with screen readers and tools with text-to-speech functionality.  The software also can enable users to select, copy, and search for text within PDF documents.  Relevant information can be quickly located using keywords or phrases with the document.      
  3. Alternative text.  OCR software can be used to create a textual description of images, graphs, charts, and other non-text content within a document.  Individuals with disabilities can then use screen readers to understand the visual information presented in the document. 
  4. Compatibility.  Documents created with OCR technology are typically compatible with screen magnifiers, and other assistive technologies used by individuals with disabilities. 
  5. Braille conversion.  OCR software can be used in conjunction with Braille conversion software to make content available to blind individuals via Braille displays or embossers. 
  6. Navigation.  The headings, structured content, and other features of documents created with OCR technology enhance navigation and usability for individuals with disabilities.  
  7. Compliance.  OCR helps organizations comply with legal requirements for accessibility. 

Together the capabilities of OCR software help promote inclusivity and accessibility to information. 


Document accessibility is essential for promoting inclusivity, complying with legal requirements, fulfilling ethical responsibilities, and ensuring a seamless user experience.  The total after-tax disposable income for working-aged people with disabilities is about $490 billion, which is like that of other significant market segments, such as African Americans ($501 billion) and Hispanics ($582 billion), the American Institutes for Research (AIR) reports.  OCR technology plays a critical role in improving document accessibility by enabling the extraction of text from PDFs and scanned documents and creating accessible versions of documents in various formats.  By leveraging OCR technology, organizations can ensure that their digital documents are accessible to all individuals, regardless of their abilities, contributing to a more inclusive and equitable environment.

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