Universal Design: Considering Access for People with Disabilities

Ethical and legal reasons abound for why you should make sure any scholarly research and teaching project is accessible to people with disabilities.3 However, universal design principles benefit all users. The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design offers a brief explanation:

Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples' needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.4

As it happens, the process of creating digital resources very often fits within this definition of universal design by helping all users, including people with disabilities. Many digital humanities projects allow users to retrieve information on their own devices in the comfort of their own workspaces. It is easy to understand how such access can help users who use assistive devices or who have mobility issues, but it is also clear that such access helps all users who want easier methods for information retrieval.

Some methods of engaging the humanities, such as digitizing text, inherently provide advantages for users with disabilities. People with visual impairments can easily adjust font size in digital texts, or if needed they can use software that reads digitized text aloud. Both of those options are improvements over the printed page or an image of a printed page. When working with images, video, or audio, it is important to incorporate digitized text into your project by means of describing images, including closed captioning, or providing transcripts. These text descriptions again prove very valuable to all users. Many people prefer reading transcripts or turning on closed captioning, even if they are able to hear audio. That preference can be related to how they prefer to process information, or it can be related to the need to work in environments where absolute silence is required (such as a library) or where ambient noise is a problem (such as public transit spaces). Digitized text is also easily searchable, so scholars can find new ways to interact with any given project that includes such text.

A key element of good universal design is to make sure your project is easily navigable as well. There are many aspects to good navigation, but one aspect that is especially key to consider is how you have organized and laid out text. Avoid unnecessary tables, for instance. In the same vein, using clear and descriptive titles and filenames helps people find information more quickly. Navigating video and audio files is also an important consideration. Users often report appreciating videos that are divided into shorter segments so that it is easier to pause and return later to the same content. Such navigability helps all users, but it is easy to see how it would be invaluable to users with learning disabilities or those who need extra time to process information.

There are many useful resources available to promote good universal design. One that is particularly appropriate for many digital humanities projects is the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative.5 If you are affiliated with a research university, library, or museum, you may also wish to work with an expert on accessibility and user experience at your institution.

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