Steve Kelley

When was the last time you got a PDF file and opened it only to discover that the file was inaccessible? If you could make the text large enough and you have some vision maybe you could read it visually with some extra time. If you use a screen reader, you'd have to dive into your bag of tricks to get it converted into a usable file.

For readers who aren't sure what this is about, here's a simple PDF primer. A PDF can have two basic formats: an inaccessible image or an accessible document. As an image (and the image could be of a document, magazine page, webpage, etc.) any text may be readable to someone with vision, but a computer screen reader will not be able to find the text for reading. PDFs that have been made into accessible documents, where text appears as text and not an image, can be read by a screen reader. Visually, these two formats can look the same. Many apps and applications create PDFs as images, which are not usable by everyone.

As the recipient of many inaccessible PDFs over the years there are several tools to keep handy—apps like KNFB Reader and Seeing AI, websites like which will convert various file formats, or more traditional optical character recognition (OCR) software. There are pros and cons to each method, and there is always room for another conversion tool!

ClaroPDF is a free iOS app that works well with VoiceOver and has been around for several years. It is also available as an Android app and a web application. There is also a ClaroPDFPro version available with added features in the iOS App Store for $9.99.

ClaroPDF has several features that make it stand out from other PDF apps. Text-to-speech is built-in, text is highlighted as it's read, and if a PDF is an image, it can convert the image to text provided there is an Internet connection.

In addition to the accessibility features for ease of reading it has a number of annotation features built-in so notes, highlights, drawings, and more can be added to the document and then saved.

Using ClaroPDF

You can open a PDF in ClaroPDF from directories on your iOS device or cloud services, like Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, and One Drive. You can also take a picture and save it as a PDF using the camera. If the PDF is already text-based, the document will open in a window with a Play/Pause button located at the bottom center, which controls text-to-speech playback. Within Settings on ClaroPDF, speech preferences like voice and reading speed can be changed, as well as the look of the text being read. The appearance of the foreground text, background color, and the color used to highlight text are all customizable.

In this reading view, text is highlighted as it is read and scrolls automatically across the screen. I did not find a way to change the text size or to have the text wrap within the borders of the window.

Both iOS VoiceOver and Speech can be used to read the text in this view, instead of using the Play button, but text highlighting will not appear, unless the Play button is selected in the app.

The real usefulness of ClaroPDF is when an inaccessible PDF is opened—either from a directory or as an attachment to email. The file can be opened or shared with ClaroPDF. In this case a dialogue box opens and you are advised that the document is an image and contains no text. Options are provided to convert the PDF into an accessible PDF. This option requires a connection to the Internet, and in the free version requires that you have credits available for each page converted. The free version starts with plenty of credits to convert hundreds of pages, so this will not be an issue for the casual user.

During my use of the app, I found mixed results from this feature. Several times the conversion of the PDF took several minutes or reported an "error." Sometimes this error was resolved by just processing the PDF again. Other times the processing time took less than a minute for a 6-page document. I tried at various times of the day, using several internet connections. It is unclear if these errors and delays were just a result of an overloaded server or some other problem.

Once the document is processed, several options become available: you can save the new document, overwrite the inaccessible document with the accessible version, or you can read the new document. One of the advantages ClaroPDF has over other OCR software is that the processed document can be saved as an accessible PDF. Other apps will process a PDF or other image and read the text, but the processed document is usually in a text or rich text (RTF) format.

ClaroPDF will convert a camera image that includes text into an accessible PDF, as well. From the main menu, there is a button labeled "Add," and from the directory listings, a button labeled, "Create Document." Both options have a submenu that includes "From Camera," and "From Library." Choosing "From Camera" opens the camera. Once the picture is taken, two options are available, "Use" or "Cancel." I took a number of pictures while using the app, but it was unclear if they were saved, or in which directory they were saved. After I selected "Use" the app automatically reverted to the main ClaroPDF directory and the image file was not evident in this file folder or in the Photos app, where image files are usually stored in iOS.

An alternative route is to take a picture with the Camera app, which saves to Photos. Then the image will appear as part of the Library selection in ClaroPDF. So, instead of choosing the "From Camera," option from "Create Document," select "From Library," which opens Photos, where you can select the image and convert it into an accessible PDF.

It's worth noting that the "Use Camera," menu option does not offer guidance for centering a page of text in the window, like other OCR apps like Seeing AI or KNFB Reader do. Additionally, the software did not correct a skewed image, so the alignment of the document impacted the accuracy of the text recognition. Overall, when a page of text was aligned well, the accuracy of text recognition was quite good.

One of the handiest features built into Claro PDF is the cloud integration with several of the most popular services, as mentioned earlier. Files may be opened from these cloud directories, read with ClaroPDF text-to-speech, converted to accessible PDFs, and saved to the cloud service file directory. This feature might simplify the process of ensuring PDF files offered on a company or agency's cloud directory are accessible—just convert them first to text-based PDF files and save them to the cloud service.

ClaroPDF worked well with VoiceOver for the most part. During the review, two buttons on the main menu in the top right corner were not labeled. To the right of the "Add" button, the button that opened the most recently used files, and to the right of that, the button that opened the cloud menu options were both labeled simply as "Button."

For iOS users looking primarily for quick text recognition from a print document or an inaccessible PDF, ClaroPDF may not be the best choice. Other apps may be better suited for quickly lining up an image in the camera viewfinder and then consistently processing the image into text-to-speech. However, if it's important to save the document into an accessible PDF format, ClaroPDF becomes a better option. As a free app, ClaroPDF is a good tool for converting image-based PDF files into more accessible text-based PDFs. It's free, simple to use, works well with VoiceOver, and really performs best when converting an existing image-based PDF into an accessible PDF. For more information, be sure to check out the ClaroPDF website.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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September 2020 Table of Contents

Steven Kelley
Article Topic
App Reviews