The following refers to George H. Williams’ “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” and Planet Money’s “When Women Stopped Coding.”
When I read the assigned text of Chapter 12 for today’s reading, on the topic of disability and “universal design,” I could have wept with joy for the unexpected address of a subject that is very close to heart for me.
My name is Chain, and though you might not think it to look at me, I am a disabled student. My struggles are not always identical to the ones that Williams’ specifically described or referenced in this chapter; I am not visually impaired or deaf, nor do I lack in physical mobility. However, I do suffer from a number of conditions that affect my ability to interact with the world – including OCD, ADHD, and a processing difficulty that, while still seeking assessment, resembles and may turn out to be CAPD (central auditory processing disorder). Because of this, the way I interact with digital tools is constantly informed by my personal needs and experiences.
Like those with more severe or total hearing loss (which I do also experience to a lesser degree), I find it difficult or impossible to follow video or auditory recordings without closed captioning or transcripts. Like those with epilepsy or sensory processing disorder, I am subject to hypersensitivity to resources that rely on flashy, overbright, or otherwise hyperstimulating displays. Like those with dyslexia or verbal processing hardships, disorganized, dense, or blocky text can require extra headaches and devotion to slog through. So, I feel very personally aligned with the experiences and accessibility gaps described by Williams in his discussion of disability and “universal design” concepts.
I also found that my understanding of the tools and formatting choices described by Williams was benefited from my experience in the workplace. Right now, I work for the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities on campus as an alternate formatting assistant. That means my job description is exactly what you all have read about: involving the difficulty of sparse and individually-powered efforts to reformat resources for the access of disabled students.
Since we are specifically addressing the digital humanities as a field, let me give an example. Say a class at the College of the Pacific relies on textbooks, articles, websites, or resources that can be accessed online. Say, then, a visually impaired, blind, or otherwise disabled student takes this course, and finds that the materials are inaccessible to them. They then submit a request to the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities, or SSD for short. SSD receives the request. If not previously arranged, the resource must be requested from the publisher or otherwise reformatted into PDF form. Then, someone like myself must go through each page of the document individually, separating it into the appropriate sections and saving each as a unique document. The documents are uploaded, one by one, into an expensive program with screen-reading capabilities. Then they are gone through individually with a tool called the “zone editor,” with which we must tell the program what parts of the text – break lines, for example; images, figures, page numbers, or footnotes – not to read. After the entire document is zone edited, the text itself must be scanned for any point at which words are broken up by line. (For example, the end of the line may say “[…] Christ-” and the start of the next line may say “mas […]”, if the word “Christmas” had to be broken up.) The underlying text is then altered so that the program reads the full word instead of two separate syllables that will not make sense to a listener. Once this process is gone through for every page in each section, the sections are re-saved, then uploaded to a server for the student’s access. All of this has to be done by the time they need to consult the text according to their class syllabus, and does not include the more difficult outsourcing process if a text or resource relies heavily on visual figures, charts, or images, which must be given a verbal description.
Now, consider: how much easier would it be for that student, and indeed anyone else who might experience inconvenience or difficulty, if a standard of “universal design” had been adhered to, and all resources were created to be accessible and reformattable from the beginning?
For some it might seem contrary for me to promote the sort of free and open access inclusive resources that would essentially eliminate the need for my job. I disagree. I am employed for want of money, yes, but my choice to work with SSD specifically is motivated from the desire to participate in what I see as an extremely important effort. And, indeed, this is where Planet Money’s podcast on gender marketing of technology comes in, too. Williams is right when he says that universal design benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities. Similarly, universal access must take into account the same: that “we should always keep the largest possible audience in mind” (Williams, “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities). This includes people of all learning styles, of all levels of ability, of all economic situations, of all cultures, of all genders, and so forth. No person should be discouraged, kept, or barred from the science, technology, and resources that benefit our society as a whole – whether it be as a result of gender bias, inaccessibility, or privatization of resources.
To put my money where my mouth is, I’ll sign off from this post with a few resources that some of you may be interested in, too. Disabled or not, you may find them helpful.
- Bee Line Reader – This extension/add-on colors text with a gradient from one line to another, allowing the mind to process it with less visual difficulty. If you have trouble reading large blocks of text quickly, this may benefit you.
- Care Your Eyes – For anyone with sight or brightness sensitivity, this extension allows you to choose ‘night mode’ to protect your eyes from harsh or overintense color or text.
- Readability – This app simplifies and eliminates visual clutter from any webpage, allowing you to focus directly on the text itself – which displays in a clean, easy-to-read format.
Good luck and happy browsing!