This year, from October 20th to October 26th, humanities researchers will observe International Open Access Week, a global event designed to celebrate and promote the benefits of open access and to encourage open access as the standard for academic scholarship. The organizers behind International Open Access Week define open access as the “free, immediate, online access to the results of scholarly research, and the right to use and re-use those results as you need.” Many projects, journals and scholarly resources within Digital Humanities promote themselves as open access, and many digital humanists support an increased commitment to open access research.
There is, however, a key difference between providing access to Digital Humanities research, and making that research accessible to all. While access can refer to “the right or opportunity to use or benefit from something,” accessibility specifically refers to something “easily obtained or used,” particularly by individuals with a disability (emphasis mine). If Digital Humanities, as a field of study, intends to maintain and perhaps even advance its commitment to access, then digital humanists must also consider accessibility when creating their projects. Far too often, the needs of individuals with disabilities remain neglected in digital spaces. According to George H. Williams, Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina Upstate:
Many of the otherwise most valuable digital resources are useless for people who are – for example – deaf or hard or hearing, as well as for people who are blind, have low vision or have difficulty distinguishing particular colors.
Indeed, despite its widespread use across many demographic groups, the Internet is “inherently unfriendly to many different kinds of disabilities” (Lazar and Jaeger, 70).
Accessibility on the Web
The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), tracks how individuals with disabilities use the Internet and develops guidelines and resources to help ensure websites are accessible to everyone. In theory, the Internet is designed to improve communication by removing barriers and obstacles; in practice, however, when websites – or Digital Humanities projects – are badly designed, they can prevent a large subset of the population from accessing information. Furthermore, each individual has his or her own strengths, weaknesses, skills and abilities, all of which can affect how he or she uses the Internet. Digital projects that take a “one way fits all” approach limit their reach and impact when certain groups of people can’t use or access that project.
The WAI offers an overview of the diversity of abilities and disabilities, which can range from auditory, visual, cognitive or physical disabilities to age-related impairments, temporary or situational impairments and health conditions. Each disability may have its own set of barriers to accessibility, requiring different solutions or alternatives. An individual who is hard of hearing, for example, might find it difficult to view audio content presented without captions, while someone with a cognitive disability might react poorly to lots of animation or moving images. Even the computer itself, with its traditional set up with a mouse and keyboard, can become an obstacle to a person with a lost limb or injury that prevents use of his or her hands.
Why Does Accessibility Matter?
Accessibility should be an integral part of Digital Humanities projects, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps most obviously, there could be legal implications, since many countries have passed laws requiring web accessibility. Digital Humanities projects are also sometimes funded through federal grants and, as Williams points out, digital humanists may lose such funding if they cannot demonstrate accessibility and adherence to federal accessibility laws.
Additionally, despite the existence of accessibility laws, a central administrating organization or group for web and digital accessibility does not. In the United States, for example, there is no one government agency in charge of ensuring compliance with accessibility laws. According to Lazar and Jaeger, this haphazard approach places “the burden on people with disabilities to enforce their own rights” (76).
Of course, accessibility also helps expand the reach of a Digital Humanities project. By taking the needs of the greatest number of people into account when designing a project, digital humanists can ensure the largest audience for their work, which in turn could help further the research or provide new contexts and connections.
Ideas and Recommendations
Improving accessibility in Digital Humanities will require more than one solution, and should include collaboration between those with expertise and those ready to learn. It will also necessitate improved accessibility policies and laws, as well as the enforcement of those laws. Williams proposes a universal design approach, explaining that universal design “is design that involves conscious decisions about accessibility for all.” It’s also efficient, providing websites and digital projects with compatibility for multiple devices and platforms. This would allow a digital humanist to design and create a project just once, then easily adapt it for different audiences or devices.
The WAI also offers suggestions by highlighting some of the tools a disabled person might use to improve his or her Internet experience (for example, hardware or software meant to help bridge the gap between the individual and the website) and the strategies and techniques a person might develop to interact with non-accessible websites. These include voice recognition software to give commands, screen readers for those with poor vision, and alternatives to the keyboard and mouse (touch-screens, joysticks, etc).
Certainly, one important step towards improved Digital Humanities accessibility is awareness within the field. A coalition of American universities and research centers is leading the charge for increased awareness with the Building an Accessible Future for the Humanities project. The Accessible Future partnership, supported in part by the US National Endowment for the Humanities, hosts a series of workshops exploring technologies, design standard and issues with digital projects, all tailored towards securing accessibility’s place in Digital Humanities.
Access has long been an integral part of Digital Humanities, grounded in the idea that digital projects should be available to as many people as possible. If Digital Humanities intends to continue its commitment to open access data and research, then accessibility – and specifically digital accessibility – must also become an integral part of the field. Designing accessible projects may require some rethinking and adjustments, but it won’t be as difficult as one might expect. Lazar and Jaeger remind us “the technical solutions for web accessibility already exist” (80). It’s simply a matter of being mindful of different abilities, considering accessibility issues and concerns from the start of each project, and ensuring that the information, in its many forms, is accessible to the widest possible audience.
“About.” International Open Access Week. Andrea Higginbotham, nd. Web. 21 October 2014.
“Access.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. Version 2.2.1. 2011. Apple, Inc.
“Accessible.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. Version 2.2.1. 2011. Apple, Inc.
Accessible Future. Indiana University Perdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), 2014. Web. 20 October 2014.
“How People with Disabilities Use the Web.” Web Accessibility Initiative. W3C, 2013. Web. 20 October 2014.
Lazar, Jonathan and Paul Jaeger. “Reducing Barriers to Online Access for People with Disabilities.” Issues in Science and Technology. Winter 2011: 69-82. Web. 20 October 2014.
Williams, George H. “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities.” Debates in Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 202-212. Web. 20 October 2014.