Williams, DH, and Open Access

This post is an overview of and response to George H. Williams’ “ Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” article from Debates in the Digital (2012).  Out of all the readings required and suggested for this week, George H. Williams’ article brought up some of the most interesting issues regarding specific digital projects, Digital Humanities as a field, and the Humanities in general. Williams states pretty bluntly to the reader that the Digital Humanities and digital projects have not done enough to ensure their work is presentable and accessible to users, particularly those with disabilities. Whereas education technology and commercial web design have been far more proactive at accommodating their platforms, web sites, and tools to suit alternative sensory needs, DH projects have ignored this aspect in design and operation. In fact, digital projects and tools have frequently, by their very design, prevented people from using digital sources altogether. Instead, George H. Williams calls for digital humanists and those creating digital projects and tools to approach their design and operation using principles of universal design. DH must approach their projects from the assumption that they will make their material available and accessible to the broadest range of users.

The first main issue brought up with this call to action lies in the definition of universal design. Williams makes the point that “universal design” is entirely different from merely making a project accessible. Certainly a project constructed with the goal of universal design will, by definition, be more accessible. However, universal design represents much more than just eventual accessibility. The difference between “accessibility” and “universal design,” according to Williams, lies in the conception of the project from the beginning stages. Whereas accessibility approaches design and operation as specifically geared towards disabled users, consequently limiting its functionality for non-disabled users, universal design conceives the project as an attempt to make it as useable and available to the widest variety of users. Williams cites Ronald Mace, who describes universal design as describing “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” (qtd. 204 DDH).  Universal design, according to Williams not only considers the physical or socioeconomic limitations of the user, but also the limitations of the devices from which the users are trying to access the project. Many projects only conceive of their users as accessing their projects from laptops or desktops, when this limits the access of tablet and mobile devices users.

But why should digital projects feel obligation to conceive their design and operation with the goal of universal design in mind? When I first started reading this article, I immediately thought, “Why should digital humanist and projects be held to a higher standard than traditional humanists?” Taken simply, if one equates the digital project to a traditional scholarly monograph, why should the digital project be required to be accessible to disabled users when so few scholarly monographs are? What about audiobooks, one might ask? Do they not make books accessible to blind people? Yes they do, but very few books actually provide audio editions or are available as audio books. I did a quick Google search asking what percentage of books has a companion audio book. A WikiAnswers query came up (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_percentage_of_published_books_also_have_a_companion_audio_book) which revealed that according to the 2009 edition of the Library Book Trade Almanac, in 2007 of the over 185,000 books published only approximately 4.3% were available in an audiobook format. Furthermore, a significant number of these audiobooks were for works of fiction. If scholarly monographs are not held to the standard of universal design, why should digital humanists?

I think there are two portions of Williams’ argument that specifically address this question. The first is logistical, based on legal issues, whereas the second concerns a more with an aspect of Digital Humanities as a field we have explored throughout the semester. The first response is pretty straightforward. In the United States, and many other countries, there are laws that require projects receiving government funding to ensure that disabled users have access to the material. While not all digital projects receive government funding, many of them do. And even though, according to Williams, these laws have not been strictly enforced concerning the acceptance and operation of federal funding for digital projects, not designing a digital project in a way that accessible to those with disabilities does open one up for legal recourse according to the letter of the laws. Therefore, Williams states we must get ahead of the curve and design projects that are accessible to avoid legal action or prevent our projects from being denied federal funding should a time come where they decide to enforce these disability laws.

Whereas this aspect is more preventative, I think the most compelling argument for digital humanists to design projects with universal design in mind deals with DH as a field and their embracing of “Open Access” as instrumental in the operation and ethos of Digital Humanities as a field. If DH stresses their acceptance of Open Access, does limiting the availability of their material by the very design of the project seem hypocritical? Shouldn’t open access imply availability to all—not just the average seeing and hearing desktop or laptop user? This is the question that convinced me that digital humanists must try to approach projects from the perspective of universal design. True “open access” must consider accessibility for both those with disabilities and those who use alternative devices to view digital material than a personal computer. So should digital humanists be held to a higher standard than traditional humanists? I think they should as long as Open Access remains one of their most vociferous rallying calls.



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