Applying Universal Design Principles to a Digital Humanities Project

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. George Williams

    English - University of South Carolina Upstate

  2. 2. Cory Bohon

    Computer and Information Systems - University of South Carolina Upstate

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program. Applying Universal Design Principles to a Digital Humanities Project
Williams, George H. , English, University of South Carolina Upstate,
Bohon, Cory, Computer and Information Systems, University of South Carolina Upstate University of South Carolina Upstate,
Over the last several decades, scholars have developed standards for how best to create, organize, present, and preserve digital information so that future generations of teachers, students, scholars, and librarians may still use it. What has remained neglected for the most part, however, are the needs of disabled end-users, especially those whose vision is impaired. While professionals working in educational technology and commercial web design have made significant progress in meeting the needs of such users, the humanities scholars creating digital projects all too often fail to take these needs into account. This situation would be much improved if more of projects embraced the concept of universal design, the idea that we should always keep the largest possible audience in mind in our design decisions, ensuring that our final product serves the needs of those with disabilities as well as those without.

We are proposing a poster session to demonstrate our work in progress on, an online scholarly resource dedicated to braille and braille literacy in South Carolina. The earliest stages of development were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Special Education, and the site is currently supported by a Level 1 Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities. The content is managed with both WordPress and Omeka, and for each of these CMSes we are developing accessibility plugins designed to meet the needs of visually impaired users. Our hope is that these plugins become widely adopted by other digital humanities projects that use these same CMSes. During our session we would demonstrate our site, argue for the importance of accessibility, and allow audience members to experience our site in the ways a visually impaired end-user would. We will also discuss the work we are undertaking—at the moment, very preliminary—to develop a tool that would automatically transform an alphabetic text file (encoded in HTML or TEI standards) into a well-formatted contracted braille file. We’re currently looking into whether or not the WordPress plugin Anthologize might be a useful starting point for developing such a capability.

BrailleSC seeks to combine digital humanities expertise with the important insights of disability studies in the humanities, an interdisciplinary field that considers disability “a way of interpreting human differences,” in the words of one prominent scholar. Digital knowledge tools that assume all end-users approach information with the same abilities risk excluding a large population of people. If the digital humanities is to accomplish the admirable goal of creating a “big tent,” welcoming a diverse array of participants, then we must broaden our understanding of the ways in which these participants access digital resources. For example, visually-impaired users take advantage of digital technologies for “accessibility” that (with their oral/aural and tactile interfaces) are fascinatingly different than the standard monitor-keyboard-mouse combination, forcing us to rethink our embodied relationship to data. Learning to create scholarly digital archives that take into account these human differences is a necessary task no one has yet undertaken.

In partnership with the Center for Digital Humanities in Columbia, South Carolina, and with guidance from George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, BrailleSC aims to model the ways in which digital humanities projects can be designed and implemented with the needs of all users, regardless of disability. Users with visual impairment often access digital information through a variety of alternatives, not primarily using traditional visual cues presented from the standard graphical user interface. For example, many such users navigate information by listening to a synthesized voice reading textual material aloud to them. The software that generates such a voice is known as a “screen reader.” To make navigation easier for these users, our “Access Keys” plug-in for Omeka allows users to get from page to page and section to section by pressing an easy-to-remember combination of keys. Other users require text enlargement , and our Omeka “Text Zoom” plug-in changes the size of the text to suit their needs. Future work will refine these existing plug-ins and develop additional ones for users to customize such elements as color and contrast.

As development of the site content and interface continues, we are conducting various user-testing sessions involving a diverse group of people with varying degrees of visual ability or impairment. All interface tools developed for the BrailleSC project have been or will be released as open source code. All content is being made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. Easy-to-follow instructions for how to implement the accessibility features are currently being created. The Center for Digital Humanities has agreed to provide long-term hosting for all tools and content developed. Finally, a white paper will be released at the project’s conclusion explaining what collaborators have learned about developing designing accessible digital humanities projects and making suggestions for “retrofitting” existing projects.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2011
"Big Tent Digital Humanities"

Hosted at Stanford University

Stanford, California, United States

June 19, 2011 - June 22, 2011

151 works by 361 authors indexed

XML available from (still needs to be added)

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (6)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None