Sharing with All: Accessibility and Historical Resources

On April 10, 2018, I presented at the Digital Commonwealth Conference in Worcester, MA. Digital Commonwealth is a non-profit collaborative organization that “provides resources and services to support the creation, management, and dissemination of cultural heritage materials held by Massachusetts libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives.” (from their site) and the conference has sessions talking about different issues involved in sharing materials.

I was asked to speak about accessibility, especially relating to online exhibits. This page shares how to get my slides, and also has notes (including links to sites referenced in the presentation.)


Because Digital Commonwealth is about digital content, my presentation focused on online exhibits and access, rather than physical-world accessibility issues. Those are also very important, but outside the scope of the time I had for this presentation. I do include a few physical access resources and comments, but very much in passing to get people started.


The material in my presentation is in text form below, but you can download a PDF of the slides (or I have a version in Google Slide format I’d be glad to share if you prefer that for access).

Please get in touch through the contact form here, or you can reach me through the Hayes Research Library at Perkins.


I designed this presentation to model some ways we can improve accessibility for people using our resources. These include:

  • Accessible slide format (using a Perkins template)
  • Letting attendees know about some possible accessibility issues
  • Talking about a wide range of access needs.
  • Describing images displayed on the slides as part of what I talk about.

I am noting specific places I did a few things where relevant. These comments start with ‘Accessibility notes’

Presentation Notes:

Topics covered:

  • Introduction and context
  • What does ‘accessibility’ mean?
  • Tools to know about
  • Seeking best practices
  • Three examples
  • Questions

I am not focusing on specific technical skills or tools here, though I’ll mention a few. There are great guides out there for how to do specific tasks in software. Instead, I want to focus on how to think about accessibility issues, and some best practices.

Accessibility notes: I noted that I tend to speak quickly. I said I do my best to slow down when presenting, but am glad to repeat or rephrase as needed. I also let people know they were welcome to stand or move around if needed.


I’ve been the Research Librarian at Perkins since May of 2015 (so about 3 years at the time of this presentation). I work with our Archivist and the Research Library and Archives Assistant.

The Hayes Research Library is one of the largest non-medical collections about blindness, deafblindness, and blindness education in the world. We get questions from everyone from 4th graders to people who are experts in their fields.

We support practitioners in the field, answer questions from the community, and get a lot of questions about historical people associated with the school, including Samuel Gridley Howe (our first director), Laura Bridgman (the first person who was deafblind to be formally educated), Anne Sullivan, and Helen Keller.

Most of our collection is in print, but for obvious reasons, accessibility is a big priority, and something we think about a lot.

We have two recent projects I’ll be talking about briefly later in the presentation:

What does ‘accessibility’ mean?

As a society, we’re really bad at talking about disability, accessibility, or the implications they bring, so I’m going to start with a very quick overview of accessibility and disability theory. Consider this a speedy overview and introduction, and use the links to explore more about specifics.

Why accessibility? It’s the right thing to do, a legal requirement for many institutions, but most importantly it includes people in their own history and community. It can also provide new perspective or context, offer more efficient access for many people, and helps demonstrate accessible options for other spaces (like businesses).

There are all sorts of different accessibility needs. Anne Gibson’s An Alphabet of Accessibility Issues is a great explanation of the huge variety of needs out there.

Some needs are long-term, and people will learn skills and tools and techniques that work for them. But there are also short-term issues, when someone may not know that a tool is an option or how to use it. Some needs are situational, for example, someone may have generally good hearing, but not in a crowded room with lots of different things going on, or be okay when they’re in a daily routine but much more easily exhausted when traveling.

What kinds of accessibility issues come up?

  • Screenreaders can’t make sense of a page/site
  • Contrast is poor, or color is used as a sole indicator.
  • Audio or video is used without captioning or transcripts.
  • Dexterity or mobility limitations affect access to content.
  • Cognitive overload (busy pages, moving items)
  • Migraine triggers (design choices, movement, etc.)
  • Image-only options (PDFs or infographics)
  • Limited technology or bandwidth access

Different ways of talking about disability

There are a number of different ways people talk about disability and accessibility, so a brief introduction is in order.

Some places use a medical model of disability, which says that people are disabled by impairments, differences, or lack of function in a specific (often measurable) way. This is often something that another person has to diagnose (like a doctor) to be taken seriously.

A lot of people in the disability community argue for a social model of disability, that a lot of things are only a problem because society has chosen not to solve them. If we removed those barriers, the disability wouldn’t exist. For example, if all buildings had access for someone using a wheelchair, the chair is simply a thing some people use; it doesn’t limit the person’s life.

Of course, some things are both. I have friends with chronic pain conditions. Even when the social model allows for pain to be exhausting, or people find ways to reduce the number of necessary appointments for prescriptions, that doesn’t remove the actual pain or side effects of treatment, which still often limit the person’s life or options.

In the chronic health issues community, you may hear people talk about being a ‘spoonie’. This comes from an analogy created by Christine Miserandino explaining how if you have chronic issues, simple tasks (having a shower, making a basic meal) may take you more ‘spoons’ than other people – but you also start your day with fewer spoons. Some people prefer a smart phone battery analogy: some tasks burn battery very fast, and some people never start with a full battery, and need to do tasks that burn through battery fast.

Another concept is Universal Design. This incorporates seven principles for design that open up access to the widest range of people. These include equitable use, flexible use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and a size and space that allows the user to use the object.

We can see examples of universal design all around us, and how they make things easier for many people. Curb cuts are a great example. They help people who use wheelchairs, but also people who are managing strollers or luggage. Audiobooks are great for people who can’t read print, but also people who are busy doing something else with their eyes, like driving. Videos with a transcript offer search options as well as accessibility. One of my favorites, after a trip to London a few years ago, was that all the black cabs were designed with universal design principles.

What can you do?

Provide information: This is the biggest thing you can do to improve accessibility. People with specific needs often spend a tremendous amount of time figuring out if they can get somewhere, what they can do when they’re there, how things will work. The more you can remove that, the better. Explain how your site navigation works, or special features.

Offer choices: Whenever possible, give people multiple choices about accessing information. If you have a video, do a transcript and captioning. Transcribe images that are featured, and give a meaningful description of others. For example, for this presentation, I gave the presentation, but I also make my slides and notes available. Provide images that allow people to zoom in as much as possible.

Recognize many different needs: Some accessibility needs get in the way of others – this is why offering people choices is often so important. For example, if you have a text-based transcript, maybe someone needs to change the colors on their screen to help their vision or avoid triggering a migraine. Some examples of conflicting needs:

  • Light background on screen vs. dark.
  • Preferred font choices and sizes.
  • Zooming in on images or scanned documents.
  • Using a service dog vs. having allergies to animals.
  • Scent allergies vs. people who use scent for pain or focus management.
  • Easy online access vs. people who only have a mobile device.

Provide options routinely: Many people with accessibility needs may not self-identify as needing them. This may be particularly true as people age: they may appreciate captioning or large print, but might never ask for it. Providing these tools routinely helps people know they exist and can make their lives easier.

Consider language choices: This is a legitimately tricky one. The standard for many organizations is to use person first language, “A doctor who uses a wheelchair” or “A student who is visually impaired”. This centers the person, rather than the disability.

However, some disability communities prefer a community or identity focus: a Deaf man, an autistic woman.

When working with historical communities, we may also use different terms than people used about themselves, or than were used about them then (this is perhaps especially true with cognitive disabilities and mental health, but it turns up in a lot of other places.)

Best practices involve using the terms an individual prefers (if you know or can find out), explaining when you use a dated term, and learning a bit about specific community preferences, such as the two above. You do want to consider searchability, especially if people may also be searching using historical language.

Meghan Rinn’s article on material in the P.T. Barnum Digital Collection highlights some other approaches that you may find very helpful.

Use accessibility to improve everyone’s experience: Often, accessible options make things better for everyone. Well-done captioning can explain background sounds or music that is relevant (but that someone not familiar with that sound might not realise). Photo descriptions can provide context for the image, for example that everyone is wearing their best clothes, or that something in the image shows that they come from a particular community.

Tools to know: Information

What’s the most commonly used accessibility tool? Increasing the font size or magnification. Fortunately, this is a really easy tool to test, but there are others that take a bit more planning.

Link text: Use meaningful text for links, such as “Read a transcription of this image” or just linking the name or title of the item they can access through the image. Using a URL can be annoying to screenreader users, and ‘click here’ is complicated for people who aren’t clicking.

Captioning: Good captioning provides the audio content in text format, including relevant background sounds. While autocaptioners can get you a lot of the way there, they will stumble over names, specialized terms, or terms that are no longer in general use.

One option is to use autocaptioning to get a basic file, then edit it yourself to correct any problems. Transcription services are also increasingly affordable (a lot of them run about $1 a minute right now: this usually involves some automatic editing plus someone reviewing it.)

Transcriptions: Transcriptions shouldn’t replace captioning of videos, but they can provide an additional powerful resource. Descriptive transcriptions can allow for additional content notes, and they’re fully searchable. They’re also more accessible to people who prefer text to video, have limited bandwidth, limited time for video, etc.

The next two topics deal with description – with these it’s fine to think about it like you would a gallery guide or other document where you share context or informed opinion about what’s going on if that’s helpful or relevant.

Alt-text: This is a description of an image that is generally only accessible by people who use screenreaders. One good option is to provide a descriptive caption for everyone, and provide purely visual information in the alt-text. This keeps the alt-text shorter and more manageable.

You should fully transcribe all images of text (such as newspaper clippings) or provide links to a text version. Linking to a separate page is often fine.

Denise Paolucci did an excellent presentation on Web Accessibility for the 21st Century (link to SlideShare) a few years ago, and has additional resources on her online journal that discuss describing images, including doing so in different contexts.

Audio description: This tool talks about what’s going on in a video for people who are visually impaired (like alt-text does for still images.) A lot of resources about audio description focus on description for movies or TV, where description tends to be more artistic. It’s fine to just be practical about it.

When doing audio description:

  • An ideal is to write the script so you don’t need to add description. A documentary about Perkins done in 2015 does this really well: the first few minutes have several examples of the speaker describing the space they’re in.
  • Descriptive transcripts offer searchability and more space than the video might have.
  • Consider what your primary focus is. (Information? Art? Storytelling?)
  • Work from the outside in. For example, for the Mona Lisa, you might say “The painting is about a foot across, with a woman smiling slightly whose head and upper body take up most of the space.” and then whatever you wanted to convey about the image.
  • Let your informed opinions and knowledge show – that makes the description meaningful.

Audio description resources can be a bit harder to find than other tools here, so here’s some help:

Tools to know: Design

WebAIM is a great site with many tools for web accessibility, and they can also help with reports and evaluation – there’s a tool there you can use to test many common issues.

Multiple indicators: Don’t use purely visual or color based references to describe items or materials. For example, ‘below’ or ‘to the right’ may not be relevant to a screenreader, or someone may not know what text is red (or blue or green).

Use multiple references like “Required text is in red and marked with an asterisk.” or “You can learn more about this in the sidebar labelled ‘Related Events'”.

Design your page to help with navigation. Headers will allow screenreader users to navigate through a longer page easily. And it’s helpful for lots of other people.

  • Go in sequence (H1, H2, H2, H3, H3, H3, H2, H3, H2, etc.) rather than jumping around levels.
  • Don’t use header levels purely to make text larger – use other formatting tools for that.
  • It is most helpful to use styles to leave a blank line after paragraphs, rather than hitting return/enter twice. (Doing the latter will have the screenreader helpfully saying “blank line” a lot.)

Clickable spaces: Small selection areas can be very difficult for people who have some kinds of mobility or dexterity issues to navigate. Pay attention to both visual areas and the length of links – for links, 3+ words works best.

Visual clutter: Visually complex pages are very hard for many people to read. This is especially true of anything that flashes, blinks, scrolls, or auto-plays. This can affect people with visual impairments, hearing impairments, learning differences, or some medical conditions.

Limit anything that moves to the minimum necessary, especially for content-rich exhibits, and don’t autoplay anything. If you do need a more involved audio or visual element, considering having it on a separate page with a description of what to expect.

Technical formatting: Don’t assume your web design folks know all about this – they may not, unless they’ve had to design for it before. There are some features that are common but not accessible (or only if people take additional steps)

  • Keyboard navigation. Can someone using a screen reader navigate using just tab and return/enter?
  • Screen reader accessible? Can they navigate using JAWS, VoiceOver, NVDA, etc?
  • Color contrast. Is there good contrast between text and background? Can people override your choices on their own devices if they need to?
  • Headings. Do headings follow a logical order? Often H1 is the title, then H2, H3, etc. are used.
  • Images. Does alt-text describe what’s in the image?
  • Forms. Can a screen reader read what is on the labels of a form? This is especially important with tools for searching.

How do you test these things? There’s an extension for Chrome called ChromeVox which provides basic screen reader abilities, if you want to get a sense, but additional testing may involve reaching out for help from people with a variety of tools, since using a screen reader is a specific skill.

Best practices:

This guide from the University of Minnesota has a great guide on making social media more accessible. (Added after the talk because I got a great question about it.)

Known people

If you’re working with known people (like people you work with) ask them what works best for them. Most people will know what they prefer and what it involves. Some ideas:

  • Do they have a format preference for notes or materials? (Plain text or text with basic styles is often most flexible.)
  • Would it help if they got slides or handouts in advance? How much in advance?
  • Is there seating or lighting that works best for them?
  • Do they need help finding or navigating the space?
  • Do they need an interpreter?


I’ve learned when designing materials that what’s obvious to me as a specialist often isn’t obvious to most people. I’ve gotten in the habit of talking about the basics, but picking a couple of stories that are less well known but relevant to what I’m talking about. It keeps things fresh for me, and gives people different information.

  • Don’t assume a shared background or background knowledge.
  • Give details to orient in space, time, and focus. Other things that were going on around that time, etc. help.
  • Explain especially unusual or interesting points.
  • What’s obvious to you probably isn’t to most visitors. Details like what clothing styles mean, or what social context of a topic meant can be very helpful.

Metadata and search

Historical terms may be what was used at a particular time, but they may not be the current language that’s preferred. This is especially true in disability history.

Consider how you want to label items. It’s usually possible to say things like “This is how it was known/named at the time, but now we’d call it…” and then use the current terms except when referring to a specific institution or title that uses an older one. (Megan Rinn’s article remains relevant.)

Tacit knowledge

Navigating complex sites online can involve a lot of tacit knowledge skills for people who aren’t technologically savvy. Consider an intro page that explains the purpose, explains navigation, and points out accessibility options as relevant. The front page of the Perkins Halifax online exhibit is an example – it describes how the exhibit works, a summary of each section, accessibility notes, then a summary of the explosion and key figures discussed.

Multiple access points

Let people explore your information in the way they prefer as much as possible.

  • Text is flexible and searchable.
  • Audio: provide transcripts and information about what’s in the audio.
  • Video: provide captioning plus transcripts and description if possible.
  • Respect bandwidth and data requirements.
  • Make it easy to start/stop/come back and find their place.


To increase accessibility with physical exhibits or programs, consider ASL interpreted or CART (Computer Aided Realtime Translation) programs, tactile tours or the chance to handle selected objects, or audio tours that describe the physical item.

I’m focusing on online resources here, but there’s a great guide from Ellen Murray, a disability advocate in the UK, with questions and guidance for physical events. (I like this guide because it does a particularly good job of discussing a wide range of needs.)

PDFs and handouts

It’s hard to create accessible PDFs without some planning. Creating a text + headings accessible document (via Word or another word processing tool) can also work.

PDFs without editing can come up with a complete jumble of content. A few minutes of editing (it usually takes me 5-10 minutes to do a 2 page document with sidebars and other elements, now I know what I’m doing) will turn it into a sequenced document much more accessible to screen readers.

How to do this will depend a bit on your software – in Adobe Acrobat, you want instructions on Tab Order, and a lot of university IT department sites have specific instructions. There’s a good detailed guide from the University of Illinois, for example.

General problem points

Some things are routinely somewhat challenging. Avoiding them if possible and testing them carefully if they aren’t is usually the best practice.

  • PDFs, handouts, etc.
  • Image display modules (slideshows, lightboxes, any rotating image)
  • Tables
  • Forms
  • Timelines
  • Height/angle/physical access for braille or tactile objects.

Is this yours to fix?

Occasionally, it might not be. We had someone who had trouble using our catalog, and who mentioned he was using a non-standard screen reader. After a little investigation, I realized it was because our catalog relies on JavaScript to search, and his screen reader didn’t process it.

We did what we’d do for any other user who doesn’t use JavaScript (offer run searches for him on request), but he could also have chosen to use a different screen reader (our site does work with the most commonly used ones).


Finally, I want to give you a few examples of Perkins projects and what we chose for accessibility.

Annual reports

Our annual reports have been scanned and made available online. There’s an uncorrected Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scan, but there’s no internal navigation. We’ve had users who are blind who want to use parts, but it’s hard to move around.

  • We transcribe manageable segments for researchers on request.
  • We format these in a document with headers and other style-based navigation.
  • We seek out volunteers who can do transcription on request in modest amounts (this is great for volunteers who can’t come into your space for whatever reason.)

Online exhibit with clippings

Our online Halifax Explosion exhibit debuted in November 2017, just before the centennial of the Halifax Explosion. We obviously wanted to make the exhibit fully accessible.

  • Our site obviously is designed with screen readers in mind in general.
  • We got feedback that multiple transcriptions were more frustrating to navigate.
  • We put transcriptions on a single page, using anchor links to navigate to the page and back to the point in the exhibit.
  • Feedback told us it was not necessary to anchor the footnotes – just make it possible to navigate using the headings.
  • Headings also break up the content into moderate sized chunks.

History timeline

We were asked to create a timeline that highlighted institutional history, aimed at staff and students. It has online and physical components, and our Archivist came up with a great modular design. It’s in a high traffic area, and we have students who may remove pieces, so we wanted to create something that would be inexpensive to fix and replace.


You can reach me through the contact form on this site, or contact info for the Research Library is on our website.

Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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