© Kathryn Wymer, 2005. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licence, 2.5
Digital media offer great possibilities for access by the
disabled. To ensure access, however, designers must take
reasonable measures to ensure that their digital texts conform
to relevant accessibility standards. Observing such standards
benefits all users and may be a legal requirement. Fortunately,
they for the most part are not difficult to implement. This
article examines some methods for ensuring accessibility. It
also advocates the development of disciplinary standards for
accessibility in the design of medieval digital projects. A
final section shows the same hypothetical text in
I would like to thank Jason Morningstar, Accessibility Specialist, Center for Instructional Technology at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for his help in reading over this piece and for making numerous useful suggestions. I would also like to thank Daniel O'Donnell and Roy Liuzza for their helpful feedback.
Article from Digital Medievalist Journal (URL: <http://www.digitalmedievalist.org/>)
Citations from the text of this article should be by paragraph number (found on the ID attribute of the p element).
New digital media offer wonderful advantages for
the disabled. Imagine, for example, that you are a blind student
enrolled in a medieval history class. How do you complete the
readings? If the assignment is from a print textbook, you likely
will need to have a friend or someone from the university's
disability services read the chapters aloud for you in an audio
recording. Such a process is cumbersome and requires you to seek
external assistance. If the readings also are available
electronically, however, you could use a screen reader, such as
Not all electronic documents, however, are
universally accessible. For a good introduction to accessibility issues, see Bohman
For a good introduction to accessibility issues, see Bohman 2003a.
What is the responsibility of the digital medievalist to the disabled? As you begin work on your next project, the thought of disabled users may not yet have crossed your mind. After all, you may have had limited experience with such users, either in your classes or among your colleagues. Nevertheless, there are several important reasons why digital medievalists should begin thinking about accessibility:
Given the time they devote to the completion of
their projects, medieval scholars working with digital media
most assuredly want their projects to be as widely useful as
possible. Ensuring that their work is accessible to the
disabled will help them achieve this goal. In addition to
increasing the overall number of potential users, meeting
accessibility standards may help encourage greater distribution
and utilization (Digital Media Access
Group 2004; University
of Arizona [n.d.]; see also the articles collected in
and Hewett 2002). When it is clear that users with
disabilities are able to access a given project, instructors
may be more likely to adopt the project as a course resource,
publishers may be more inclined to become involved, and
libraries may be more likely to acquire copies. It is also
important to recognize that universally accessible design
benefits all users, not just the disabled. Consider, for
example the rising popularity of cell phones and
Universal accessibility is therefore a good idea, but it may also be a legal requirement (French and Valdes 2002). If your project uses government funds, you may be expected to comply with accessibility laws. Although such laws vary from country to country, most countries have some provision for ensuring that disabled persons have equal access to information and services (see World Wide Web Consortium, Web Access Initiative Education and Outreach Working Group 2004 for a partial list of such laws). Even if your project is privately funded, your use of digital media in an academic environment may still require you to consider electronic accessibility. The responsibility of colleges and universities toward accessible digital media has been debated widely in the United States (see Carlson 2004; Schmetzke 2004). Recent investigations have shown that few schools have adequate policies in place regarding electronic accessibility. A few universities, such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Washington, have developed explicit guidelines based on the belief that universities have legal and moral responsibilities to accommodate disabled users (University of Wisconsin Board of Regents 2002; University of Wahington/AccessIT 2002).
Achieving a greater level of accessibility is
not difficult when project authors plan ahead to avoid the most
common problems: failing to provide text alternatives for
graphics and rich media; creating ineffective navigational
structures; and mixing presentational and structural page
elements. Looking more closely at guidelines for accessible
content, such as the
Individual solutions to accessibility problems
will have to come on a case-by-case basis, but a good starting
point would be some consensus among the community of medieval
scholars about what accessibility guidelines we ought to follow.
What level of accessibility ought we strive to reach? Take the
example of a manuscript edition. Part of the project may be the
inclusion of manuscript images. What level of description should
we allow for blind users? Another aspect of the edition may be
audio recordings of some of the manuscript's contents. How should
a project's author attempt to accommodate deaf users? Some would
argue that all projects should at least make equivalent options
available for persons with disabilities. The
Where then should we begin? As is always the case
with digital projects, it is easier to create a design that
avoids potential problems than to attempt to fix them after the
fact. Many groups, notably the W3C's WAI and
Since not all of us create web-based projects, we also need to work together in order to help each other evaluate the accessibility of our projects. As a starting point we need to agree on objectives that help us avoid the most common accessibility problems. I propose the following as a minimum community standard:
There are a number of simple solutions we can take in our individual projects to ensure a greater degree of accessibility. A discussion of these key objectives may lead us to a clearer idea of what considerations we ought to keep in mind when beginning a new project.
Universal accessibility should matter a great deal to the community of digital medievalists. New trends in medieval scholarship have begun to emphasize the historical contributions of persons with disabilities and to examine the ways that such persons have participated in or have been represented through literature, art, music, and history (see Snyder et al. 2002). We need also to consider the contributions that future persons with disabilities can make toward the study of the medieval period and help them on their way by making more accessible electronic resources.
Examples of good (and bad) web-design are of course legion. Good
manners and the bibliographic instability of many online
resources require the development of hypothetical examples,
however. To illustrate the points raised in this paper I have
created two versions of a hypothetical electronic edition, the
Aethelfrith Project. The first version, the
Further examples of inaccessible pages that demonstrate
accessibility problems have been assembled by the Center on
Education and Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
(University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center on Education and
Work 2004). See also Bohman 2003b for examples of
accessible pages that avoid sacrificing style for
Further examples of inaccessible pages that demonstrate accessibility problems have been assembled by the Center on Education and Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center on Education and Work 2004). See also Bohman 2003b for examples of accessible pages that avoid sacrificing style for accessibility.
Users who need keyboard access (including blind persons who use a screen reader and persons with mobility issues that require the use of other assistive technologies) may be unable to accommodate the mouseover popup messages.
Important images on this page do not have alternate text. The
project title and navigation bar are hidden from users
accessing the page with a screen reader or text-only browser.
The unimportant sea image in the middle of the page, on the
other hand, has a verbose and unhelpful alternate text which
should be omitted. Important images must be described using the
alt attribute; unimportant images should include
an explicitly empty
for necessary images can ensure wider distribution, increase
the speed with which your documents load, and improve ease of
navigation for all users.
altattribute. The decorative image of the sea contains an empty
altattribute, indicating that the image is not important to the sense of the page.
For a list of current and depreciated HTML elements, see World Wide Web Consortium 1995-.