Thinking about accessibility: Accessible Future 2014 at UT-Austin

Accessible Future, Susan Floyd nametag and welcome folder


At the end of February 2014, I attended the two-day Accessible Future workshop hosted at the UT School of Information. Now that it’s spring break and I have a little extra time, and I wanted to compile a quick list of insights and resources for those who are curious about accessibility, especially anyone who may’ve been following my tweets from the event (check the #AFAustin hashtag on Twitter). Though I am an information science neophyte, I was relieved to find I was not the only attendee who had only considered “accessibility” in terms of user-friendly infrastructure and web design, rather than through the prism of Disability Studies. In fact, though I of course knew that Disability Studies is a rapidly growing field of important research, I didn’t really know much about it at all, much less how it applied to me as a future professional archivist. Let’s start at the beginning. Accessible Future has compiled a handy Reading List for their workshop attendees. That’s a good place to start if you’re new to this, like me; I especially recommend the first two articles:

Two quotes from organizers Tina Herzberg and George Williams have continued to resonate with me in the weeks since the workshop:

“Imagine disability otherwise.” – Tina Herzberg

“Access is a social justice issue.” – George Williams

What is Inclusive Access and Why Is It Fundamental?

Dan Brown from HumanWare showed a BrailleNote device that allows him to work with a computer.
Dan Brown from HumanWare showed a BrailleNote device that allows him to work with a computer. Photo courtesy Ranti Junus, used with permission. 

By imagining disability “otherwise,” Dr. Herzberg means rethinking the connotations of “disability.” We must consider that disability can be invisible, temporary, common, varied; we must consider how people are treated differently depending on whether their disabilities are visible or invisible. Usually, the words we use to talk about disability center on stigma rather than activism and empowerment. Is it not the case that, in addition to “invisible” disabilities, all of us will experience disability at some point in life, whether it is temporary or permanent? What if we normalize how we think about disability?

Dr. Williams argued that access is a social justice issue. Not only is not having to consider access issues a form of privilege, but it is one that is often related to economic, racial, gender, and other access issues. Through this analysis, it is clear that access can be–should be–defined as one among a variety of social justice-oriented approaches. Building access for users with disabilities into our systems and designs is not optional, an “extra” feature to be considered if time permits. It is a fundamental issue of justice, necessary as a foundational value for equality.

Furthermore, it is actually quite simple to build these standards into our design processes. For instance, why not consider alternative text a required element of one’s HTML? The creation of web sites that are maximally accessible to a variety of users is only a sensible expansion of the concept of design itself. This approach does, of course, call into question the traditionally heavy emphasis placed on visual aesthetics in web design, but also provides an opportunity to expand our concepts and practices of aesthetics, considering the needs of a wider variety of potential users.

The workshop participants also had a robust and productive discussion of the term “universal access,” which most found to be exclusionary and, ironically, too limiting, insofar as it was understood to mask differences among users and communities while also assuming a truly universal standard is practical or even desirable. Dr. Adeline Koh‘s input was especially productive, and the group eventually began to consider alternative terms, including the most popular choice, “inclusive access.” Don’t miss Dr. Koh’s amazing Postcolonial Digital Humanities project (especially the comics!), which she runs with Roopika Risam.

One of the most memorable sessions during the workshop was a presentation by Dan Brown of HumanWare, a company that makes products enabling blind and low-vision users, such as the impressive screen reader Mr. Brown demonstrated for us. He also noted that beginning to think about access can be “overwhelming” and recommended a great web resource as a starting point: W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative. Brown also echoed George Williams in encouraging us to think about accessibility from the very beginning of any project, not as a later “add-on.” Jeremy Boggs added, “Always ask: What do these design and development decisions do for accessibility, usability, and maintainability?”

Web transcription of Sir Beues of Hamtoun, from the Auchinleck Manuscript
Screen reader technology meets Middle English! Dan Brown using a HumanWare screen reader to test the web transcription of Sir Beues of Hamtoun, from the Auchinleck Manuscript, ca. 1340. 

Brown’s demonstration of the screen reader, using several web sites, including the pages of many workshop participants and their institutions, provided an invaluable insight into how blind and low vision users read and use the web. One of the most exciting demonstrations for me was our peek at a transcription of the Auchinleck manuscript, which is written in Middle English. Surprisingly, the screen reader was able to read the transcripted text, including now-archaic Middle English letters such as þ and ȝ (which, I must admit, I was thrilled to learn how to code in HTML–so I had to work those into this post!).

All of this got us archives folks interested in investigating our field’s current accessibility standards and activism. We were pleased to discover that the Society of American Archivists, the national professional organization, already has extensive accessibility resources available and standards in place.

Useful Tools and Links

Though we covered more than I can begin to summarize, I was particularly excited to learn about these tools one can easily use to improve accessibility of web pages, from the design stage:

CodePen – an HTML, CSS, and JavaScript code editor in your browser with instant previews of the code you see and write.

WAVE Web Accessibility Tool – a very user-friendly online tool that checks page accessibility, displaying your page with tags to show good and bad points. Just input a URL and get busy!

The WebVTT (Web Video Text Tracks Format) is intended for marking up external text track resources. The main use for WebVTT files is captioning video content. Check it out! Click here for an explanation of the difference between subtitles and closed captions.

If you’re a WordPress user, be sure to read Accessible Future’s WordPress and Accessibility document.

Check out this HTML & CSS Accessibility guide created by Jeremy Boggs for Accessible Future. And: why use the acronym and abbr tags?

How to Apply to Attend Accessible Future

If this post got you thinking and/or whetted your appetite, please consider attending yourself! You can still apply for this year’s two remaining Accessible Future workshops!

Workshop 3: Nov 14-15, 2014 at University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE

Workshop 4: Late 2014 / early 2015 at Emory University, Atlanta, GA

Apply through the Accessible Future web site.

Thanks and Acknowledgments

Accessible Future is led by Assistant Director Jennifer Guiliano (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities – MITH), George Williams and Tina Herzberg (, with assistance from workshop hosts Elizabeth Dillon and Ryan Cordell (Northeastern), Tanya Clement (UT), Kay Walter (UNL), Stewart Varner and Brian Croxall (Emory). The team is assisted by: Jeremy Boggs (University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab), James Smith (MITH), Cory Bohon (Independent Developer), Clay Jeffcoat (Access Technology Coordinator for the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind), and Marty R. McKenzie (Principal of the Division of Outreach Services for the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind).

Thanks to this dedicated team, I enjoyed a paradigm-shifting weekend of accessibility learning. I’d like to personally thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding the Accessible Future project.

Find Accessible Future organizers on Twitter:

@AccessibleFu Accessible Future

@jenguiliano Jennifer Guiliano, Assistant Director, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities

@TinaBrailles Tina Herzberg, Associate Professor, Visual Impairment Education Program, University of South Carolina Upstate

@GeorgeOnline George H. Williams, Associate Professor of English, University of South Carolina Upstate

@coryb Cory Bohon, independent iOS and Mac Developer

@clioweb Jeremy Boggs, Design Architect at the University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab

@tanyaclement Tanya Clement, Assistant Professor, School of Information, University of Texas at Austin

Bonus: Thanks to Cory Bohon, I also learned about the worst web site ever. Enjoy!


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