Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanist/Librarian

In the chapter, Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities, George Williams argues that while scholars have developed standards on how to best create, organize, present and preserve digital information, the needs of people with disabilities are largely neglected during development. It is assumed that everyone has the same abilities to access these ‘digital knowledge tools’ but it is more often the case that these tools actually further disable people with disabilities by preventing them from using digital resources altogether. In order to rectify this oversight, Williams believes that digital humanists should adopt a universal design approach when creating their digital projects, offers reasons why they should, and gives project ideas.
Universal design is defined as “the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life” (“Ronald L. Mace”). For designers, it is making a conscious decision about accessibility for all, not just focusing on people with disabilities. Four reasons why digital humanists should adopt universal design principles are:

  • In many countries, it is against the law for federally funded digital resources to not be accessible. And while U.S. federal agencies do not yet require proof of accessibility, this may not be the case in the future. Section 508 of the U.S. Federal Rehabilitation Act requires that all federal agencies “developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology” ensure that disabled people “have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data” by people who are not disabled. Projects seeking government funding could be turned down in the future if they cannot show proof of complying with Section 508.
  • Universal design is efficient. In order to comply with Section 508, web developers would create an alternate accessible version. Creating two versions is expensive and time-consuming, so it would make sense to just create one version.
  • Applying universal design principles to digital resources will make those resources more likely to be compatible with multiple devices including smartphones and tablets, which disabled people often use. Studies also show that an increasing number of people who access the web use mobile devices, among those minorities and people from low-income households.
  • Most importantly, is that it is the right thing to do. As digital humanists, we recognize the importance of open access to materials, and we should extend the concept of open access to include access to disabled people. We do not often think about people with disabilities while developing digital resources, and that can lead to barring this group from the information entirely. If the goal for our resources is to share with as wide and diverse an audience as possible, we should already be using universal design principles.

Williams then shares project ideas, including accessibility tools for the more popular content management systems (WordPress and Omeka), format translation tools that convert RSS feeds into XML formats for digital talking book devices, and tools for crowdsourced captions and subtitles. He concludes with the reciprocal benefits of adopting universal design principles and the significance of digital resources being not only useful but usable to all.

While reading this article, I couldn’t help but think about the ALA’s Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy (found here ) Without going into too much detail, the policy was approved in 2001 and recognizes that people with disabilities are often a neglected minority and that libraries play a crucial role in promoting their engagement with their community. And that libraries should use “strategies based upon the principles of universal design to ensure that library policy, resources, and services meet the needs of all people.” The policy then goes on to make recommendations on how libraries should improve services, facilities, and opportunities for people with disabilities. The policy is a big point in library school, it’s often hammered into students’ brains, and is a central point when creating access to the library and its collections (for legal and ethical reasons). I am not sure why it took until the chapter and seeing the similarities to the ALA Policy to consider people with disabilities in regards to digital resources-possibly because I haven’t created a ‘complete’ digital project yet-but I can say that it is something I will definitely consider going forward. Maybe because it’s my first semester in the program, or because I still see myself as a librarian first and digital humanist second, instead of just being both. Either way, this was a good reminder to truly think about accessibility for all.