Accessibility in a Digital Age

As Rosenzweig and Cohen address (and we briefly touched on in class last week) – the issue of web accessibility is a complicated one.

Something for history websites (and creators of digital content in general) to consider is how legislation like the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010  (or new legislation regarding accessibility/federal funding) will come to impact the content you create and share online. Though this act isn’t expanded to image and video on websites (it largely extends protections surrounding television accessibility and access to internet services) we should consider how our content is shared/experienced by those that visit our sites.

Given the history in the US of disability accessibility law, it is fair to reasonably anticipate that as we begin to move from the physical to the digital greater emphasis will be placed on providing accessible media. If the struggle to include closed captioning in conjunction with television broadcasting or to develop and use teletypewriters on existing telephone lines are any indication, it will be a long and protracted process [both those examples are examined at length by Karen Strauss]. And one that begins, first and foremost, in locations/organizations that receive federal funding/support. The most well known example of this would be the physical accommodations required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it has also been defined in terms of telecommunications access (AT&T, for instance, prohibited the use of discarded teletype machines by members of the deaf community and charged deaf users high rates for use of telephone services they couldn’t access while they experienced diminished accessibility to police/fire/safety services – all of which had to be overturned through a protracted legal process).

I wonder what accessibility on the web will come to look like and if the CVAA is the first step in that direction. Will it follow the same path as accommodations required by/for some, but not all – or are we moving into a new arena with a distinct set of problems and solutions?

Contemplating Web Design.

I’ll admit it. This week’s reading made me totally embarrassed about the appearance of my blog. My title, the layout and design I chose, it’s configuration. It’s all just… terrible. (But it can be fixed!)

But it also got me thinking about what it could be, who I want to share my work with and what I want people to see. One of the take-aways from this collection of readings was that the construction and configuration of a site matters, and it matters a great deal. Putting thought and effort into that process returns great rewards in terms of impact. 

When I think about this process (and my final project for this class) I’ve started contemplating what the possibilities are. Given my research interests and the academic community in which I am engaged, accessibility and audience are chief concerns of mine.  In considering the form and function of my site, I’ve gathered inspiration (obviously completely outside of my skill set, but inspirational nonetheless) from two sites that handle language and access in an interesting way. 

  • The Deaf Studies Digital Journal – This is a peer-reviewed journal that is experimenting with the combination of American Sign Language and English in several ways – Journal articles are presented in American Sign Language, accompanied by pdf articles/transcripts in written English (Note: even the navigation menus provide ASL access)
  • Deaf Magazine – combines print and web to provide German Sign Language videos to accompany written content.

As both these demonstrate, the term “accessibility” can mean much more when we consider the unique web-usage of community members. It also sparks some reflection for me about low-vision/deafblind individuals and the complexity of providing accessible web experiences. 

What is Digital History?

Screenshot of the video "Deaf Mute Girl Reciting 'Star Spangled Banner'"
Screenshot of the video “Deaf Mute Girl Reciting ‘Star Spangled Banner'”

This is a question I’ve been trying to answer since I was accepted to the History program at GMU. Former history professors and thesis advisors, friends and family have all cocked their head to the side with a quizzical, “That’s great… So what is that?”

I’ve struggled to find an answer that satisfies, lingering instead on areas where I envision it’s application. The readings for this week’s class have moved me closer to developing my own, more complete, answer to this question, but I’ll reserve the crafting of that response until the end of the course.

For now, I’d like to consider how Digital History has already begun to impact the field of Deaf History in ways that we’ve yet to fully address. I’ve been thinking about Christopher Krentz’s article in Signing the Body Poetic, in which he examines the role of the camera in recording and preserving the expression of American Sign Language. It’s important to note that for many deaf people, sign language is the first and primary language. While we have numerous examples of Deaf writing, it is often difficult to access culture and community when one is mediated through another language (in this case written English). As with other oral cultures, embedded in the signed stories of Deaf community members was important historical and cultural information, passed between generations. As Krentz suggests, “the advent of film has striking parallels to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century.” [pg 51]

Given technical limitations, the earliest preserved moving evidence of ASL is a 1902 film [available online through the Gallaudet University archive and the Library of Congress here] and a film project initiated by George Vediz of the National Association of the Deaf, from 1910 to 1920, recorded “sign masters” giving formal addresses, describing literature, performing and storytelling [Veditz is seen here and other videos are available in the Gallaudet Video Catalog]. The importance of film technology is immeasurable in that it has preserved what had been entirely ephemeral. And as Cohen and Rosenweig noted in Digital History: A Guide, as we’ve moved into a digital age, what was relative scarcity (prior to the interconnectivity of webpages and video sharing) is suddenly excess as the web has exploded with video narratives by deaf people. Websites have sprung up for the purpose of “vlogging” [examples here and here].  A cursory youtube search, for instance, turns up countless videos of deaf people (or, increasingly) hearing students of American Sign Language, eager to share.

The question will become, as Cohen and Rosenweig suggested for future historians, how to address this abundance of information. I can think of no current efforts in the field of Deaf History to begin this process or to address the preservation of vlogs.


Introductions are difficult when they are one-sided, but here we go! I’m a fellow in the Center for History and New Media and a first year PhD student. I hold dual masters degrees (in Deaf Studies and Deaf History) from Gallaudet University and my MA history thesis focused on the events surrounding St. Ann’s Church for Deaf-Mutes in New York (from 1850 to 1905).

I’m interested in US History, specifically the history of Deaf people in the US in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries- but I also have a broader interest in disability, gender and sexuality.