Making DH Projects Accessible

Making Digital Humanities (DH) projects more accessible seems to be increasingly trending.  People without disabilities often just take it for granted that “everything” is seemingly accessible if it is digital and online.  It really takes the effort of stepping out of your own shoes to try and imagine what the digital (and for that matter, the physical world as well) is like for those with impairments.  Having Dr. Salamone as a guest speaker really helped me to do that.  Prior to his talk, I honestly could not have imagined how difficult it would be to complete dissertation level research while not being able to see.  Hearing his firsthand account made all of the issues much more apparent to me.  For example, I had always considered .pdf files to be a high-quality type of file that was preferable to other digital file types.  I had no idea that .pdfs cannot be converted into audio files.  Lesson learned!

Dr. Salamone also gave realistic expression to how much people and organizations can help or hinder (and sometimes even effectively block) the ability of impaired persons to more easily obtain access to archives.  He made it clear that doing as much prep work as possible paved his way, because if he approached archive personnel with a focus on particular documents or collections, they were more apt to take him seriously from the onset and provide the assistance he required.  He made it clear that several of the state level archives in Alabama and Mississippi went out of their way to provide documents in forms that he could use.  He also noted that a larger federal archive (the Library of Congress), while having some staff that were willing to assist, had administrators hampered by rules and regulations that limited their ability to provide effective access.  It was very distressing and unfortunate to hear.  Aimi Hamraie, in her American Quarterly article regarding DH accessibility, made the argument that many organizations (such as universities and government agencies) typically follow the “letter of the law” when it comes to disabilities compliance.  They do what is minimally required of them, and then trumpet their compliance as evidence of their progressive inclusion.  Hamraie makes the argument that minimal legal compliance is often inadequate and frequently overlooks entire groups of impaired persons.[1]  It takes effort beyond mere legal compliance to truly create accessibility and inclusion.

Dr. Salamone also made the point that some private information services, like and, were inaccessible because the files they provide are not convertible into audio files.  As we discussed in class, these are private companies with overriding profit motives, and are unlikely to make their databases more accessible due to the costs involved.  This is also distressing and unfortunate to realize.  In her discussion with our DH class about accessibility, Dr. Ural made the realistic point that making DH accessible requires time and funds.  If funding is limited, then scaling back the size of the project should be considered, so that making the project accessible is retained as part of the project.  So, that is ultimately the point that should be kept in consideration when planning to undertake a DH project in the future.  DH project proposals should include time and monetary provisions that make increased accessibility as part of the project.  The challenge of increased accessibility is to understand what changes, inclusions or deletions need to be considered and undertaken, and how much time, money and effort is involved to implement them.  In some instances, simple changes such as selecting a font that makes it easier for dyslectic readers to use, may make a big difference.  Remembering to use light colored backgrounds with large, dark lettering, in simple-structured and uncluttered pages can also go a long way to improving accessibility.  It is important to use file types that can be converted into audio files.  I would also be willing to make audio files part of DH projects from the onset, including pre-recorded podcasts.  The challenge involves learning what you can do to format DH projects with as many provisions as possible to increase accessibility to the widest possible audience.  It is worth the time, funding and effort!

[1] Aimi Hamraie, “Mapping Access: Digital Humanities, Disability Justice, and Sociospatial Practice,” American Quarterly 70 no.3 (September 2018): 458-460, accessed February 8, 2021.