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Range of impact: accessibility in your work

What is universal design? What is accessibility?

"'Universal design' is the process of creating products that are usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, operating within the widest possible range of situations; whereas 'accessibility' primarily refers to design for people with disabilities. While the focus of accessibility is disabilities, research and development in accessibility brings benefits to everyone, particularly users with situational limitations, including device limitations and environmental limitations." (Shawn Lawton Henry, et al., "The role of accessibility in a universal web," 2014)

In this workshop, while I appreciate the aims of a universal design approach and especially its goal to design products that are usable across the widest possible range of people and contexts, I continue to use the term "accessibility," given that it is quite difficult to make anything truly universally accessible, across differences of, for example, institutional access, location, wealth, nationality, language abilities, mental and physical abilites, etc.

Approaching accessibility

What forms of accessibility are particularly relevant to consider when designing, doing, and sharing digital research and projects?

Accesibility to marginalized populations and communities

Questions to consider:

  • is your project accesible to communities without internet access?
  • what is the reading level required to understand the text?
  • could the project be displayed visually?
  • do you define terms and avoid jargon?
  • is your project accessible to the public and people outside the academic community?
  • do people outside of your circle have a way to know about your project?

Accessibility to people with disabilities

Questions to consider:

  • is your project accessible to people with visual, hearing, or other physical impairments?
  • if your project exists in a physical space, is that space accessible to people with various disabilities?
  • is your project accessible in a variety of formats-e.g. are all images or audio clips paired with a text description? if your project is online, does that site function with a screen reader?

Sources to check out:

George Williams, "Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities," 2012
Dr. Joshua Miele’s work on digital accessibility - see a review of his GC talk by Nanyamkah Mars here
Tyler Zoanni, "Creating an Accessible Online Presentation," 2017
Julia Miele Rodas, "YouDescribe: Testing Crowd-sourced Video Description for Service Learning at the City University of New York," 2015
Jennifer Sutton, "A Guide to Making Documents Accessible to People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired"

International accessibility and language access

Questions to consider:

  • is your project accessible from outside of the country where you made it?
  • are there particular language-speaking audiences that may find your project useful or pertinent? is your project accessible in the language(s) that they speak?
  • if yes, did a person create the translations or an automated service? do you have a method for quality control?

Sources to check out:

Humanidades Digitales Library Guide, prepared by The Graduate Center, CUNY, Library

Openness and accessibility

Questions to consider:

  • Is your project behind a paywall? or only accessible through propriety software or specific expensive hardware (e.g. Mac computers)?
  • If your project exists online, does it require large bandwidth to open?
  • Is your project open access? open source?
  • Is your project licensed for sharing through Creative Commons?
  • Would you consider creating an Open Educational Resource (OER)?
  • Would you consider making any data related to your project publicly accessible? (and would this raise any anonymity, confidentiality or other ethical concerns?)

A note on "free software" and user control from Richard Stallman:

"According to Stallman, for software to qualify as free it must provide what he describes as 'four essential freedoms'. 'Freedom zero is to run the program however you wish, for whatever purpose you have. Freedom one is the freedom to study and change the source code’ … These two freedoms allows users to individually control their own copies of software, and tailor it to their needs, however … 'Collective control is the way that non-programmers can participate deciding what the program can do,' he explains. 'It requires two more freedoms: freedom two is to make exact unmodified copies and give or sell them to others when you wish. And freedom three is to make copies of your modified versions and give or sell them to others when you wish. So when the program carries these four freedoms, the users control it, it respects their freedom, that's free software. But if one of these freedoms is missing or incomplete, then the program controls the users and the proprietor controls the program'" (Factor, interview with Richard Stallman, "The Vanishing State of Privacy," 2017)

Sources to check out:

Patrick Smyth, "Materials for 'Open and Accessible: A Critical Distinction' at Teach@CUNY Day"
Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter, Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software, 2007

What or when not to make things accessible

Thinking of accessibility here in terms of making tools, projects, writing, or data readily available for re-use without having to first directly request permission, when might researchers or makers not want to make their work or data fully open and accessible?

"I have increasingly come to wonder if “permission-less-ness” as many in “open” movements have theorized this, is built on some unexamined exploitation and extraction of labor–on invisible work, on unvalued work. Whose digital utopia does “openness” represent?" (Audrey Watters, "Invisible Labor and Digital Utopias," 2018)

"Guard against the re-identification of your data. Practice ethical data sharing." (Matthew Zook et al, "Ten simple rules for responsible big data research," 2017 (rules 3 and 4)) For example, it is not best practice to report the number of Native Americans who report having a serious mental illness if there are only 10 Native Americans who participated in a survey in a given location.

When might researchers or makers decide not to even record data or media, or to delete?

"Just because we can record everything doesn’t mean that we as scholars must or should record everything... At some level, all forms of recording (writing, audio, video, photo) must be evaluated for how they distribute burdens of risk and objectification." (Roshanak Kheshti, interviewed by Kelsey Chatlosh, "Interview: Sound recording, oral positionality, and audio as ethnographic object," 2018)

"As we celebrate enhancements to the discovery of and access to our online oral history collections, we need to carefully reflect on and consider the consequences of providing immediate and widespread access to oral history interviews... No matter what the topic, oral history interviews can contain a massive amount of personal information posing a wide range of potential risks to the narrator, but also to the archive." (Doug Boyd, "Informed Accessioning: Questions to Ask After the Interview," 2015)

If you want your data to be accessible but not open access, consider creating a terms of data use agreement so people would have to formally request to use the data with a proposal of their project prior to them obtaining the data.


Think about the digital project or research you are or will be working on. Pair up with another person near you and discuss:

  • Who will be able to access your research or project?
  • Where and through what media will it be accessible?
  • Will it cost money to access?
  • Will it be accessible in different languages?
  • Will it be accessible to people with visual, hearing, mobility, or other physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities?

Share as a class.

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