Why Universal Accessibility Should Matter to the Digital Medievalist


Digital media offer great possibilities for access by the disabled. To ensure access, however, designers must take reasonable measures to ensure that their digital texts conform to relevant accessibility standards. Observing such standards benefits all users and may be a legal requirement. Fortunately, they for the most part are not difficult to implement. This article examines some methods for ensuring accessibility. It also advocates the development of disciplinary standards for accessibility in the design of medieval digital projects. A final section shows the same hypothetical text in accessible and inaccessible codings.


Accessibility, Web site design, Disabilities, Screen readers

How to Cite

Wymer, K., 2005. Why Universal Accessibility Should Matter to the Digital Medievalist. Digital Medievalist, 1. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/dm.9


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§ 1 New digital media offer wonderful advantages for the disabled. Imagine, for example, that you are a blind student enrolled in a medieval history class. How do you complete the readings? If the assignment is from a print textbook, you likely will need to have a friend or someone from the university's disability services read the chapters aloud for you in an audio recording. Such a process is cumbersome and requires you to seek external assistance. If the readings also are available electronically, however, you could use a screen reader, such as Freedom Scientific's Job Access With Speech (JAWS) (Freedom Scientific [n.d.]), to complete your work.

Opening paragraphs of this article as rendered by Freedom Scientific Wynn 3.1 screen reader
Figure 1: Opening paragraphs of this article as rendered by Freedom Scientific Wynn 3.1 screen reader

§ 2 Not all electronic documents, however, are universally accessible.[1] Poor layout and design make some texts extraordinarily difficult for screen readers and other adaptive technologies to accommodate, and poor choices in the use of color and other graphic elements fail to take into account readers who are colorblind or have other visual impairments. Other aspects of digital design can reduce access for persons with different kinds of disabilities. The inclusion of audio fragments without text captions, for example, neglects the needs of the hearing impaired; poor navigation can exclude those with cognitive disabilities or who use special keyboards or interface devices.

Opening screen of this article as rendered by Lynx text-only browser (80% actual size).
Figure 2: Opening screen of this article as rendered by Lynx text-only browser (80% actual size).

Why accessibility design matters

§ 3 What is the responsibility of the digital medievalist to the disabled? As you begin work on your next project, the thought of disabled users may not yet have crossed your mind. After all, you may have had limited experience with such users, either in your classes or among your colleagues. Nevertheless, there are several important reasons why digital medievalists should begin thinking about accessibility:

  1. Accessible design can benefit all users, and more widely useful projects are likely to be adopted by other teachers and scholars.
  2. In many jurisdictions, accessible design is a legal obligation.
  3. Ensuring accessibility does not have to be a cumbersome or difficult process.

Accessible design benefits all users

Opening screen of this article as rendered on the PalmOne Treo 600 PDA/cell phone (actual size).
Figure 3: Opening screen of this article as rendered on the PalmOne Treo 600 PDA/cell phone (actual size).

§ 4 Given the time they devote to the completion of their projects, medieval scholars working with digital media most assuredly want their projects to be as widely useful as possible. Ensuring that their work is accessible to the disabled will help them achieve this goal. In addition to increasing the overall number of potential users, meeting accessibility standards may help encourage greater distribution and utilization (Digital Media Access Group 2004; University of Arizona [n.d.]; see also the articles collected in Ball and Hewett 2002). When it is clear that users with disabilities are able to access a given project, instructors may be more likely to adopt the project as a course resource, publishers may be more inclined to become involved, and libraries may be more likely to acquire copies. It is also important to recognize that universally accessible design benefits all users, not just the disabled. Consider, for example the rising popularity of cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) as internet interfaces: designing with accessibility in mind can aid people using these devices as well.

Accessible design can be a legal obligation

§ 5 Universal accessibility is therefore a good idea, but it may also be a legal requirement (French and Valdes 2002). If your project uses government funds, you may be expected to comply with accessibility laws. Although such laws vary from country to country, most countries have some provision for ensuring that disabled persons have equal access to information and services (see World Wide Web Consortium, Web Access Initiative Education and Outreach Working Group 2004 for a partial list of such laws). Even if your project is privately funded, your use of digital media in an academic environment may still require you to consider electronic accessibility. The responsibility of colleges and universities toward accessible digital media has been debated widely in the United States (see Carlson 2004; Schmetzke 2004). Recent investigations have shown that few schools have adequate policies in place regarding electronic accessibility. A few universities, such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Washington, have developed explicit guidelines based on the belief that universities have legal and moral responsibilities to accommodate disabled users (University of Wisconsin Board of Regents 2002; University of Wahington/AccessIT 2002).

Accessible design can be easy to implement

§ 6 Achieving a greater level of accessibility is not difficult when project authors plan ahead to avoid the most common problems: failing to provide text alternatives for graphics and rich media; creating ineffective navigational structures; and mixing presentational and structural page elements. Looking more closely at guidelines for accessible content, such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Access Initiative (WAI) will help authors as they create new projects and will demystify the process of ensuring accessibility.

First steps

§ 7 Individual solutions to accessibility problems will have to come on a case-by-case basis, but a good starting point would be some consensus among the community of medieval scholars about what accessibility guidelines we ought to follow. What level of accessibility ought we strive to reach? Take the example of a manuscript edition. Part of the project may be the inclusion of manuscript images. What level of description should we allow for blind users? Another aspect of the edition may be audio recordings of some of the manuscript's contents. How should a project's author attempt to accommodate deaf users? Some would argue that all projects should at least make equivalent options available for persons with disabilities. The Community of Practice model used by the Digital Medievalist Project (DM) is ideal for engaging with this problem. We need scholars to discuss their own experiences in creating accessible (or inaccessible) projects and their suggestions about what practices to follow for the future.

§ 8 Where then should we begin? As is always the case with digital projects, it is easier to create a design that avoids potential problems than to attempt to fix them after the fact. Many groups, notably the W3C's WAI and Web Access in Mind (WebAIM) have created easy-to-follow checklists for creating accessible electronic content (World Wide Web Consortium, Web Access Initiative Education 2004; Bohman 2001). For those working with web pages, there are also a number of online page checkers, such as Watchfire's Bobby software (Watchfire Corporation 2002-2005), that can help authors as they make judgments about accessibility. Some web design programs, such as Macromedia Dreamweaver MX (Macromedia Inc 1995-2005), also have built-in accessibility checkers. Slatin and Rush 2003 is a useful textbook on the subject.

§ 9 Since not all of us create web-based projects, we also need to work together in order to help each other evaluate the accessibility of our projects. As a starting point we need to agree on objectives that help us avoid the most common accessibility problems. I propose the following as a minimum community standard:

  • that projects avoid using color, graphics, visual style, or audio elements as a sole means of conveying information;
  • that projects do not rely exclusively on features of a particular input device, such as a mouse, for navigation and selection;
  • that projects recognize the special needs of those with cognitive disabilities, through the use of clear navigation and the allotment of extra time for timed responses when required, for example, in pedagogical software or by logouts for subscription services;
  • that projects maintain an awareness of the accessibility features in commonly-used applications;
  • that projects commit to testing by persons with disabilities or by other specialists in order to evaluate accessibility.

§ 10 There are a number of simple solutions we can take in our individual projects to ensure a greater degree of accessibility. A discussion of these key objectives may lead us to a clearer idea of what considerations we ought to keep in mind when beginning a new project.


§ 11 Universal accessibility should matter a great deal to the community of digital medievalists. New trends in medieval scholarship have begun to emphasize the historical contributions of persons with disabilities and to examine the ways that such persons have participated in or have been represented through literature, art, music, and history (see Snyder et al. 2002). We need also to consider the contributions that future persons with disabilities can make toward the study of the medieval period and help them on their way by making more accessible electronic resources.

Appendix: The (In)Accessible Aethelfrith project

Examples of good (and bad) web-design are of course legion. Good manners and the bibliographic instability of many online resources require the development of hypothetical examples, however. To illustrate the points raised in this paper I have created two versions of a hypothetical electronic edition, the Aethelfrith Project. The first version, the Inaccessible Aethelfrith , illustrates many commonly-used techniques that reduce accessibility. The second version, the Accessible Aethelfrith , illustrates one way of incorporating accessibility standards into the same text. Other approaches are, of course, possible.[2] Differences between the two versions are discussed below.


The Inaccessible Aethelfrith uses color as a sole method for marking important distinctions in the text. This represents an obvious problem for colorblind users. The largest percentage of such users will have difficulty with the red/green distinction, but many colorblind persons have difficulty distinguishing the full range of colors. In addition, there is insufficient contrast between the light green text and the gray background. The use of color is acceptable, but needs to be handled with caution, keeping in mind colorblindness, the need for contrast, and accessibility for the blind.

Why fixing this problem will help all users: Many people have difficulty distinguishing shades of color. Monitors, too, can reproduce color inaccurately. Indicating textual variants by a change in font face, decoration, or weight (e.g. through the use of italics or bold characters) will aid many users. If you must use color, consider providing strong color contrasts (see Arditi 2002 for a chart of appropriate color contrasts; there are several utilities available for checking website accessibility for the visually impaired, including Newman Color-blind design evaluation http://newmanservices.com/colorblind/default.asp and Vischeck http://www.vischeck.com/). For users who might still have difficulty, you might consider adding a list of all textual variants in a separate document. Such a resource may be generally helpful to all users.

How the Accessible Aethelfrith addresses this problem: The Accessible Aethelfrith project avoids the need for color contrast by using different font faces and weights to distinguish among different types of readings.


Users who need keyboard access (including blind persons who use a screen reader and persons with mobility issues that require the use of other assistive technologies) may be unable to accommodate the mouseover popup messages.

Why fixing this problem will help all users: Popup messages, especially those activated by mouseovers, frustrate many users. This page in particular functions awkwardly in Mozilla-based browsers, which require the user to close popup windows explicitly using the OK button (in the current version of Internet Explorer, the textbox appears on mouseover and disappears on mouseoff). Popovers are also disabled in many web-capable cell phones and PDAs and plain text browsers. Consider an alternate method for providing your glossary. At the very least, a separate document containing glossed words with reference to line numbers will be helpful.

How the Accessible Aethelfrith addresses this problem: The Accessible Aethelfrith project places the glossary and textual variants in a separate file, avoiding the need for popup windows.

Inaccessible Aethelfrith mouseovers in Lynx (80% actual size). Mouseovers do not work in this device.
Figure 4: Inaccessible Aethelfrith mouseovers in Lynx (80% actual size). Mouseovers do not work in this device.


Important images on this page do not have alternate text. The project title and navigation bar are hidden from users accessing the page with a screen reader or text-only browser. The unimportant sea image in the middle of the page, on the other hand, has a verbose and unhelpful alternate text which should be omitted. Important images must be described using the alt attribute; unimportant images should include an explicitly empty alt attribute.

Inaccessible Aethelfrith navigation in Lynx (80% actual size). Square brackets display the names of graphic files used for navigation buttons and masthead.
Figure 5: Inaccessible Aethelfrith navigation in Lynx (80% actual size). Square brackets display the names of graphic files used for navigation buttons and masthead.

Why fixing this problem will help all users: The graphics in this project are an obvious problem for blind users. But images also can cause problems for users of hand-held devices and cell phones. Avoiding the unnecessary use of images and supplying appropriate alt attributes for necessary images can ensure wider distribution, increase the speed with which your documents load, and improve ease of navigation for all users.

How the Accessible Aethelfrith addresses this problem: The Accessible Aethelfrith limits its use of images and ensures that their important information is described on the alt attribute. The decorative image of the sea contains an empty alt attribute, indicating that the image is not important to the sense of the page.

Accessible Aethelfrith navigation in Lynx (80% actual size).
Figure 6: Accessible Aethelfrith navigation in Lynx (80% actual size).

Style and formatting

The Inaccessible Aethelfrith uses a mix of deprecated features (such as the html:font element) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to control formatting. It also mixes absolute and relative values on elements such as html:font.[3] The use of depreciated elements and style features can make a page difficult to maintain. The mix of absolute and relative values can affect users with smaller or larger than expected displays or who wish to override the designer's default style.

Inaccessible Aethelfrith rendered in narrow browser window (actual size).
Figure 7: Inaccessible Aethelfrith rendered in narrow browser window (actual size).

Why fixing this problem will help all users: Many users will have difficulty with the overall formatting in this project. Although style sheets are recommended for layout and presentation, they should not be used to convey important information that cannot be accessed when style sheets are disabled. This page demonstrates inconsistent design that eventually may cause problems for the designer as the page is updated.

How the Accessible Aethelfrith addresses this problem: Uses style sheets for layout and presentation rather than to convey essential information. The page is readable with style sheets turned off. It also uses only relative values in style sheets, allowing users to resize the display or text on their own systems.

Accessible Aethelfrith with style turned off and large screen fonts (50% actual size).
Figure 8: Accessible Aethelfrith with style turned off and large screen fonts (50% actual size).


Finally, the Inaccessible Aethelfrith is poorly organized. First of all, there is no way for users with screenreaders to skip the navigation if they so choose. Accessible pages should include a skip navigation link before long navigation lists. Secondly, the row of asterisks marking the end of the passage provides a problem for screenreading software, as each asterisk is read aloud individually. The use of frames is also poor design: while contemporary screen readers can render framesets, not all devices are able to do so, or do so well. Users with PDAs or text-only browsers may have difficulty with this document. Frames also make it difficult to bookmark specific pages within a frameset and may cause problems for users with cognitive impairments.

Inaccessible Aethelfrith frameset as rendered in PDA/Cell phone (actual size).
Figure 9: Inaccessible Aethelfrith frameset as rendered in PDA/Cell phone (actual size).

Why fixing this problem will help all users: Bad organization is bad for any page. Streamlining the way this page works will make it a lot easier to navigate for everyone.

How the Accessible Aethelfrith addresses this problem: The Accessible Aethelfrith does not use frames. All information is presented in the main screen or, via links, in separate documents.


[1]. For a good introduction to accessibility issues, see Bohman 2003a.

[2]. Further examples of inaccessible pages that demonstrate accessibility problems have been assembled by the Center on Education and Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center on Education and Work 2004). See also Bohman 2003b for examples of accessible pages that avoid sacrificing style for accessibility.

[3]. For a list of current and depreciated HTML elements, see World Wide Web Consortium 1995-.


I would like to thank Jason Morningstar, Accessibility Specialist, Center for Instructional Technology at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for his help in reading over this piece and for making numerous useful suggestions. I would also like to thank Daniel O'Donnell and Roy Liuzza for their helpful feedback.

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----, Center on Education and Work. 2004. Aquatic Arts learn by example - Web accessibility for all.http://www.cew.wisc.edu/accessibility/examples/goodbad/goodbadintro.htm.

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Kathryn Wymer (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill NC, USA)





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