Veronica With Four Eyes

How To Make Historical Documents Accessible For Low Vision

Some of my academic assignments as well as personal side projects have required me to examine copies of primary source and historical documents in a variety of formats. These documents are often more difficult to read than modern-day printed documents because of faded ink/colors, low contrast, or other quality issues. Because of this, I often have to change how I approach reading historical documents with assistive technology and have a few different options for reading or interacting with content. Here are my tips for how to make primary source and historical documents accessible for low vision, and my favorite assistive technology tips.

Typewritten documents

Typewritten documents are inclusive of documents that are produced using a typewriter or computer. Unlike handwriting, each typewritten letter/number/symbol has a generally consistent appearance and size. This consistency makes typewritten documents a great candidate for OCR technologies, which recognize text from images.

Options for reading typewritten documents with assistive technology:

  • Scanning text or having text read out loud with a scanning pen- I use the Scanmarker Air which can read up to size 24 pt font and supports multiple languages
  • Using a visual interpreting app to read text out loud- this can be done by holding a device over the page with a hand or by placing the device on a stand and positioning the document accordingly
  • Handheld or desktop video magnifiers can also be used to magnify text- some also have OCR capabilities

Related links

Handwritten documents

Handwritten documents may not have consistent size or appearance for letters/numbers/symbols, and older documents may have faded ink colors as well. OCR technology is less reliable for detecting text, especially cursive text, but there are still a few other options.

Options for reading handwritten documents with assistive technology:

  • Enabling a color filter on desktop or video magnifiers to increase visibility of text- I like to use an inverted color scheme, i.e white text on a black background
  • If available, adding additional task lighting such as lamps or clip-on reading lights can make text easier to read, either with or without additional magnifying aids
  • Taking a photo or scanning handwritten documents to read them on a tablet or phone allows users to use pinch-to-zoom gestures or apply additional image filters
  • Some visual assistance apps such as Seeing AI have options for reading handwritten text specifically

Related links

Scanned PDF copies of text

Many libraries have scanned PDF copies of handwritten or typewritten historical documents that can be configured to be compatible with assistive technology. This can be done by the librarian or document production team.

Options for reading scanned PDFs with assistive technology:

  • Use the Read out loud/Read Aloud option available in Adobe, Microsoft Edge, and other PDF documents to have text read out loud.
  • Select text in the document and copy/paste it into another program to enlarge text or change other formatting details. Note that word spacing may be affected
  • Open the PDF in Word to convert it to an editable document
  • Use a digital magnifier such as Magnifier or Zoom to enlarge text

Related links

Primary source videos/film

Primary source videos and films that are archived with museums, presidential libraries, and similar sources often include a captioning file and/or transcripts that can be read by the viewer to get more information. Transcripts also often include a description of visual content in the video/film.

Viewers that are sensitive to flashing or flickering animations may prefer to read transcripts for primary source videos as they may contain floaters or flickering effects depending on the quality of the film.

Other options for watching primary source videos/film with assistive technology:

  • Casting the video to a larger screen or TV using tools such as AirPlay or Google Chromecast
  • Searching for videos on the Described and Captioned Media Project, which provides audio description, captioning, and transcripts for educational media
  • While not technically a form of assistive technology, watching videos in a well-lit room can sometimes help mitigate adverse effects from flashing or flickering animations

Related links


The majority of libraries, museum archives, and similar sources will have a caption or image description linked with digital copies of images/photographs that provides information about significant visual details, such as who is in the picture and where it was taken. This is similar to including alt text for an image, though the caption/image description is “exposed” so that anyone can read it.

Options for viewing historical images/photographs with assistive technology:

  • Search for high resolution copies of images online. This can be done in most web browsers by right clicking or long pressing an image and selecting the option “search for this image”
  • Add image descriptions and/or alt text when posting images on social media or websites

Related links

Audio recordings

While audio recordings themselves do not involve any visual content, audio playback tools may be difficult to use with assistive technology.

Options for listening to audio recordings with assistive technology:

  • Download audio files to play back in another application that is more familiar
  • Use an audio player that has raised or tactile buttons, or that is compatible with a screen reader
  • If a transcript is not available, tools such as Otter AI can generate a transcript of audio content for free or at a low price

Maps (physical and digital)

Maps often have a high level of visual detail that require more careful examination compared to reading text, as each letter and symbol are of critical importance. Personally, I prefer to read digital maps when possible as larger maps may be cut off or more difficult for me to read due to the size, while digital maps can be fit to my device screen.

Options for reading maps with assistive technology:

  • Handheld video magnifiers can move across a page and allow users to adjust magnification settings
  • Some libraries provide magnifying glasses with various magnification powers for reading maps- these can typically be requested at the reference desk
  • Google Earth/Google Maps have several historical maps available that can be examined further with existing assistive technology tools

Related links

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How to make historical documents accessible for low vision. How to use assistive technology to make primary source documents and historical media accessible for viewers with low vision