Applying Universal Design Principles to a Digital Humanities Project: Further Information

Poster session at Digital Humanities 2011

Project overview

Our work combines digital humanities expertise with the important insights of disability studies in the humanities, an interdisciplinary field that considers disability “a way of interpreting human differences,” in the words of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Digital knowledge tools that assume all end-users approach information with the same abilities risk excluding a large population of people.

Making digital resources accessible is necessary to enable users with a variety of disabilities and abilities to participate fully in humanities research and teaching. In providing accessibility tools to disabled communities, we are able to enrich their individual research and learning efforts beyond the formal educational process. Furthermore, taking a universal design approach to our resources not only results in tools usable by individuals with disabilities but also improves digital environments for all users.

If the digital humanities is to accomplish the admirable goal of creating a “big tent”– welcoming a diverse array of participants–then we must broaden our understanding of the ways in which these participants access digital resources. For example, visually-impaired users take advantage of digital technologies for “accessibility” that (with their oral/aural and tactile interfaces) are fascinatingly different than the standard monitor-keyboard-mouse combination, forcing us to rethink our embodied relationship to data. Learning to create scholarly digital archives that take into account these human differences is a necessary task no one has yet undertaken.


Undergraduate student, Computer and Information Systems
University of South Carolina, Upstate

Associate Director, Center for Digital Humanities
Research Assistant Professor, Department of History
University of South Carolina, Columbia

Assistant Professor of Education
University of South Carolina, Upstate

Assistant Professor of English
University of South Carolina, Upstate

Assistant Director and Lead Programmer, Center for Digital Humanities
University of South Carolina, Columbia

BrailleSC offers online visitors an opportunity to see and hear site contributors describe first-hand what braille means to them and how they use it in everyday life. In addition, easy-to-understand materials to help teach and learn braille are provided for teachers, parents, and anyone who needs tips. This site was the project by which we began to learn how and why to make digital resources accessible for a variety of users.


Our experience with made us aware of the need for a central location to discuss, create, and share resources for accessibility in the digital humanities. In response to this need, Cory Bohon created, a new online community for collaborating on tools, plugins, documentation, and other resources for developers and website administrators looking to make their websites more accessible.

Our goal is to help establish best practices for popular content management systems like WordPress, Omeka, and Drupal, allowing anyone with limited technical knowledge of website accessibility to create rich, fully accessible websites.

Current plugins and tools

Access keys. Enables an Omeka or WordPress site administrator to add keyboard shortcuts that allow a user to navigate the site using only a keyboard, an important accessibility feature for users who are blind or visually impaired.

Plugins and tools under development

Automatic braille translation A plugin for both both WordPress and Omeka that allow endusers who are blind to convert an online alphabetic text into a braille file (.brf) suitable for use with a refreshable braille display or a braille embosser. Our tool is based on liblouis, the popular, open–source braille translation engine <>. This engine features support for computer and literary braille, contracted and uncontracted translation, several dozen natural languages, three braille mathematics systems, and many document formats.

Text customization A plugin for WordPress and Omeka to allow endusers with low vision or other visual impairments to enlarge the text and adjust the color scheme to improve readability. This plugin remembers the user’s preferences for up to 30 days, or until the user switches back to the default site settings.

Video subtitling This tool will facilitate volunteer-based, collaborative captioning and transcription of a collection of video or audio files stored in an online archive. We are experimenting with the free and open–source captioning tool created by the Universal Subtitles project: <–center>. Our goal to customize the code so that this tool saves the captions/transcription into the relevant metadata field of an Omeka archive rather than onto the Universal Subtitles site.


This project has received support from the USC Upstate Office of Sponsored Awards and Research Support, the United States Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities. Significant technical advice and support have been provided by the University of South Carolina Center for Digital Humanities and George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

Additional Readings and Resources

Accessibility: standards, guides, tutorials

Accessible Digital Media Guidelines.” The WGBH National Center for Accessible Media. WGBH Educational Foundation, 2006.

Accessibility.” Web Design and Applications. Ed. Shawn Lawton Henry and Liam McGee. World Wide Web Consortium, 2010.

Alexander, Vlad. “Can Checklist Accessibility Be Harmful?” Rebuilding The Web. June 2010.

Evaluating Web Sites for Accessibility: Overview.” Web Accessibility Initiative. Ed. Shadi Abou-Zahra. World Wide Web Consortium, 2011.

Featherstone, Derek. “ARIA and Progressive Enhancement.” A List Apart. 30 November, 2010.

Fischer, Detlev. “The Accessibiilty of WAI-ARIA.” A List Apart. 30 November, 2010.

Groves, Karl. “In Defense of ‘Checklist’ Accessibility.” 12 April, 2011.

Introduction to Web Accessibility.” Web Accessibility in Mind. Utah State University. 2009-2011.

Snook, Jonathan. “Keyboard Accessibility for Web Applications” 30 March, 2011.

Steve, Faulkner, and Lawson Bruce. “HTML5 and Accessibility.” Script Junkie. Microsoft. 25 May 2011.

Thatcher, Jim. “Accessibility Resources.” 2 May 2011.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview.” Web Accessibility Initiative. Ed. Shawn Lawton Henry. World Wide Web Consortium, 2011.

Web Content Accessibility and Mobile Web: Making a Web Site Accessible Both for People with Disabilities and for Mobile Devices.” Ed. Justin Thorp and Shawn Lawton Henry. Web Accessibility Initiative. World Wide Web Consortium, 2008.

Web Accessibility Initiative. World Wide Web Consortium, 2011.

Disability and demographics

Fox, Susannah. “Americans Living with Disability and Their Technology Profile.” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. 21 Jan. 2011.

——. “What People Living with Disability Can Teach Us.” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. 26 Jan. 2011.

How People with Disabilities Use the Web: Overview.” Web Accessibility Initiative. Ed. Shadi Abou-Zahra. World Wide Web Consortium, 2011.

World Report on Disability. World Health Organization. 2011.

Universal design

Accessibilty and Universal Design,” Office of Vocational and Adult Education | U.S. Education Department.

Chisholm, Wendy, and Matthew May. Universal Design for Web Applications. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2009.

Mace, Ron. “A Perspective on Universal Design.” Ed. Jan Reagan. The Center for Universal Design. North Carolina State University, 2008.

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