Assessing Accessibility in the Digital Humanities

It is easy to forget the things we take for granted. That’s sort of why we take them for granted in the first place. When tasks don’t require much planning or strain, our brains don’t seem to work as hard, and so those little things slip through the cracks as our synapses prune and make more room for other ‘more relevant’ information. But what seems to be easiest to forget is that we still get a say in what counts as relevant. Ask any tutor the best way to study material and they’ll tell you to involve multiple senses, to try different techniques; basically to make your brain do new kinds of work. Reading the textbook isn’t enough. You have to quiz yourself, make flashcards, study while you exercise, pace yourself . . . there is a lot of thought that goes into making those tidbits of information memorable, of making them more relevant.

Original caption: “Disabled veteran, ca. 1943” from the US National Archives

One area where this effort to make overlooked information relevant is accessibility. Too frequently we design buildings, create technological devices, or program software, to enhance the quality of life for able-bodied individuals. There is such focus on traditional, idealized progress that other individuals get left behind. In the clamber to make life easy, we sometimes make tasks more difficult for those with cognitive, motor, visual, or auditory disabilities.

So often we cater to the audiences most like ourselves without thought, but also without malicious intent. When you are part of the majority it is easy to mix up your perspective with the perspective. We have to continually be reminded of information and the only way that happens is when reality doesn’t fit expectation. In the example of accessibility, consider how your daily commute might change if you break a leg. You might have to scoot or crutch around campus instead of walking, which in turn means finding a ramp and most likely an elevator. It means maneuvering through crowded hallways or relying on the politeness of another to hold a door open for you. It probably means a lot more work to go a much shorter distance (a cast can feel pretty heavy after dragging it around all day!).

Even being left-handed can pose challenges. Writing on a whiteboard seems next to impossible as your hand creates and erases all in one movement. Even using scissors or choosing a seat in class can be limiting depending solely on design. There is a stigmatizing dichotomy between ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’. Everyone can benefit from a more inclusive environment and the two terms ‘abled’ or ‘disabled’ are far from clearly defined and implemented. Instead, they function on a spectrum and can fluctuate with age or situation, from individual to individual.

Postoperative treatment circa 1907 from the Internet Archive Book Images on flickr

All of this is to say that more work needs to be done on the front end of content creation for inclusive designs (I will have to save the ‘universal’ design soapbox for another post). The examples given so far focus on the physical challenges faced by individuals outside the majority. Also worth recognizing is the way the digital world is designed by the majority for the majority. Consider a digital project called The Viral Texts Project, which uses a web face to present visualized data that, “seeks to develop theoretical models that will help scholars better understand what qualities—both textual and thematic—helped particular news stories, short fiction, and poetry “go viral” in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines” (according to their about page).

To me, the website is able to accomplish its goal because I can access it in it’s entirety. I can click on the links and various tabs as I like. I can scroll through the pages of images and texts. I have average eyesight and can read the black and grey text on the white background. The contrast of the black and white images and the scanned in newspapers are not difficult for me to see and move through. I can move the mouse in any direction I’d like without much effort. It does not take me long to sort through this site, and in my mind, this makes the site accessible — accessible to me at least.

After employing the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE), I was able to see the ways that this site could be less inclusive for individuals who are able in ways different than me. The WAVE tool allows users to assess any website for attributes that may make it harder for people to access. The Viral Texts Project homepage for example, might exclude a user with visual impairment as they might have a hard time viewing or reading the text on the page. Although I find the black and white thematically fitting for the 19th-century inspired site, the contrast could be difficult to make out even and might require adjustments for legibility (increased/decreased brightness, inverse coloring, etc.).

The Viral Texts Project homepage with WAVE critiques visible. The black and white theme of the site could make it difficult for visually impaired users to see and read the site clearly.

One thing the homepage executes well is the use of Headings, Footers, and Unordered Lists. When used appropriately, these aspects help keep the content organized and sensical. We often take for granted the use of a mouse when pursuing digital projects or researching online. If your mouse were to break you would have to rely solely on your keyboard to navigate you through the website. Using the tab function, allows a user to jump from structure to structure, but those structures have to be labeled as such before they can be navigated through. In other words, you have to tell the computer that those units of text are relevant and why they are relevant. The proper use of headers and lists makes for a more accurate text reading and effective navigation of the site which is necessary for the people who need these tools but also useful for all users in general.

While the website is imperfect, it is apparent that the content designers had accessibility in mind, though not at the forefront of their models. When compared to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the site holds up well, but could still improve. According to, these guidelines rely on four concepts that evaluate whether the website is:

  1. Perceivable: Available to the senses (vision and hearing primarily) either through the browser or through assistive technologies (e.g. screen readers, screen enlargers, etc.)
  2. Operable: Users can interact with all controls and interactive elements using either the mouse, keyboard, or an assistive device.
  3. Understandable: Content is clear and limits confusion and ambiguity.
  4. Robust: A wide range of technologies (including old and new user agents and assistive technologies) can access the content.

The WAVE tool demonstrates that The Viral Texts Project‘s most frequent accessibility mistake is visual contrast. Although an easy problem to fix, the issue could affect all four of the guidelines outlined above. The contrast issue (cited 19 times on the homepage by the WAVE tool) provokes sight problems, decreasing the project’s perception. It also makes the content more difficult to understand as it could be confusing and time-consuming to read. Because of this, the operability and robustness are also negatively affected by the site’s choice of color contrast alone.

Tabbing through the ‘Love Letter’ publication on The Viral Texts Project site shows how making material interactive can make it extremely difficult to access for those with motor disabilities. By appealing to the majority of able bodied individuals, the digital project inadvertently excludes a potential group of users.

The site also makes an effort to make a 2-dimensional product more interactive. Likely in the hopes that users will engage with material that they might not otherwise. The Web Accessibility in Mind intro article makes a strong point about the evolution of newspapers, that fits The Viral Texts Project’s situation quite well:

“Recall the pre-internet days: How could blind people read printed newspapers? They could travel to a library for an audio tape or bulky Braille version, or they could ask someone to read to them at home. This made blind people dependent upon others, but it was all we could do.”

The article goes on to evaluate the ways that the internet has increased accessibility for people with blindness and other disabilities. With various tools like screen readers, captioning, and buttons and specialized keyboards for those with motor disabilities, it seemed that the invention of the internet created endless opportunities for people with disabilities. But, as the article points out and The Viral Texts Project exemplifies, “The web’s great potential for people with disabilities remains largely unrealized“. In making their text interactive and perhaps more compelling for able-bodied individuals, The Viral Texts Project overlooked and excluded an extremely relevant group of individuals from engaging with its content.

The classifications we rely on are no exception to the phenomenon of inclusion and exclusion, relevancy and irrelevancy. It is easy to forget that our experience is not everyone’s experience, that the world is full of limitless interpretations, and that nothing makes one perspective more ‘correct’ than another. Like so many other classifications, able-bodied people often take ‘accessibility’ for granted. Linguistically, figuratively, and physically, we don’t seem to take enough time to consider the ways the things we create can be interpreted (much less if they are able to be interpreted at all). Like quizzing yourself with flashcards, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes takes mental work. But, it is work that needs, now more than ever, to be done.

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