Ever since I joined a student-run bipartisan think tank at my university last year, I have become very interested in policy work and learning about how government and public service programs came into existence. One of the most common sources that I use for learning about historical or specific/obscure information is presidential libraries, which have both in-person locations and digital databases with tons of primary source documents, photos, and multimedia recordings.
At first glance, these types of materials may seem inaccessible for someone with vision impairment and making them accessible can seem impossible. However, with the help of assistive technology, anyone can learn how to make historical documents accessible for vision impairment. Today, I will be sharing how to make specific historical document types accessible for people with vision impairment.
Why are historical documents different than standard documents?
Historical documents often have restrictions on scanning and copying for personal use. Finding accessible copies of more obscure documents can be highly difficult as a result. In addition, people that are visiting historical libraries often don’t have large amounts of technology with them, and librarians may not be trained in accessibility either. This post focuses on quick, free ways to configure historical documents so that they can be enlarged or read out loud while preserving them for future generations.
Physical typed documents
Documents written using a typewriter or a computer have uniform letters and size, unlike handwriting. For this reason, they are a great candidate for OCR scanning technology. This way, the text can be enlarged or read out loud. Since documents can be too fragile for traditional scanners, I use the app Microsoft Office Lens, which makes scanning as easy as taking a picture. I also have had great luck using a scanning pen like the ScanMarker Air, which can read information out loud or have it exported into another document. Make sure to ask permission before using outside technology though.
Digital documents in presidential library databases are usually in a PDF format. A major benefit of this is that users can use the text highlight feature to copy text into other applications. Text can be read by a screen reader or by using Immersive Reader. Users can zoom in on documents as well.
Another benefit of having digital text is that users can make text easier to read using free online tools. Each person has their own preferences, but some examples of how to make text accessible is by increasing the font size, choosing an easily readable font, changing the page color, and using increased spacing between lines.
- Using PDF files
- Immersive Reader review
- My favorite tools that make online text easier to read
- Easy to read fonts for print disabilities
- Colored backgrounds and the readability of text
While I am able to read large text with ease, I find it difficult to read all handwriting. Often times, handwritten documents have poor contrast due to many factors, like age or limited writing utensils. Common examples of poor contrast are brown text on yellow paper, gray text on white paper, and faded blue text on gray paper.
If I want to read the text myself (not out loud), I take or find a photo of the document. After that, I use the negative/inverse display mode on my device and zoom in on text as needed. Since this method is imperfect, finding transcripts of handwritten text is still the best option.
Many digital videos in presidential libraries and similar databases feature captioning. At first glace, this might not seem helpful for people with vision impairments. However, there are frequently transcripts that accompany these historical videos along with captions. Transcripts can provide details about the background, scenery, and who is talking.
For students sensitive to flickering or flashing lights, some historical videos may trigger adverse reactions. This is due to floaters on the screen, changing lighting conditions, camera movement, and flash photography
Almost all historical images feature black-and-white photography, which can be blurry or difficult to see for someone with vision impairment. Sometimes, I use the Seeing AI image description feature to figure out what is in a photo. Usually, I rely on image descriptions from librarians, teachers, and museum curators to fully understand a physical image. Important items to have in an image description include:
- Who is in the photo
- What they are doing
- When it was taking place
- Where they are located
- Why the image is significant
- Simulating vision conditions using photo editing
- Seeing AI review
- Writing image descriptions and alt text
As images are put into digital formats, researchers include alt text and image descriptions. This makes the images easily accessible for the visually impaired. I like being able to see images myself, so I will download the highest resolution image that is available. From there, I will zoom in and examine details of the image as needed.
Digital audio recordings
Digital audio recordings don’t need to have anything fancy done to them to make them accessible to the visually impaired. They do need to have an accessible audio player to accompany them though. If possible, I download audio recordings and play them in the default app of whatever device I am using. This is because many websites feature audio players with very tiny buttons and make it hard to rewind/fast forward. Another benefit of using my own audio player is that I can slow down audio tracks. This makes it easy to type out information as I go along.
Maps frequently feature lots of fine lines and small details, which can be daunting for someone with a vision impairment. When reading a map of a president’s house, I was given a library-owned video magnifier. Another library had tactile versions of popular maps, so I could feel around and understand where certain landmarks were.
I use many of the same tips and tricks to make digital maps accessible as I do for digital music. This is because both types of documents have lots of detail, and no detail can go unaccounted for. With a page of text, one letter can be cut off and the reader will still likely understand the text. Increasing contrast, enlarging print and images, and adding color are all extremely helpful for making maps and music easier to see and interpret.
Thanks to assistive technology and the work of research librarians around the world, it is now easier than ever for people with vision impairments to access historical documents and learn more about the past, whether it is while sitting in a library or while sitting at the computer. Learning how to make historical documents accessible for vision impairment is an incredibly useful skill to have, and I hope that over time more databases will be expanded to include accessible materials for all.