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Tools for Digital Content Accessibility

This lesson plan introduces web content accessibility using Universal Design concepts to evaluate web-based projects.

Published onSep 19, 2019
Tools for Digital Content Accessibility


Digital humanists are information creators, analysts, and developers. They often take analog-based histories and construct new ways of connecting information using web tools, digital spaces, and language. The ability to access these creations from the perspective of a person with a disability is often an afterthought for most digital humanists because it is still a frequent afterthought in much of web development overall. By approaching web-based projects from a Universal Design approach, and emphasizing the need to consider the project audience at the project start, digital humanities practitioners can scratch at the surface of the larger web accessibility landscape. This lesson plan is set up as a one-shot instruction session or short workshop, in order to corral sets of digital humanities students, faculty, or librarians who may be embarking on a web-based project.

Session Specifics

The intention of this lesson is to draw out questions regarding accommodation, universal design, and accessibility, as they relate to a web-based digital humanities projects. In particular, the learning outcomes are aligned with tool and project assessment, along with ways to approach implementation from a modular and flexible mindset as opposed to reactive and static design approach. Arranged by cognitive complexity, the learning outcomes are split between basic objectives and an advanced objective. There is a pre-class reading assignment to enhance the potential for sustained learning,1 but the class in its entirety can be completed in 90 minutes.

This is a one-shot lesson that can be also integrated into a digital humanities or information literacy course as a learning module. This lesson is intended for mid- to high-level digital humanities practitioners. Additionally, this lesson can be used to train faculty and librarians in the various accessibility questions to bring to the digital humanities classroom.

Instructional Partners

Digital humanities faculty, digital technologies librarians, digital librarian faculty and staff. Information Technology (IT) staff that specialize in web accessibility, or other personnel and administrative units dedicated to digital accessibility.


Practicing digital humanities students who are relying on web technology, and intend their output to reach broad audiences. Parties interested in Universal Design Principles and compliant web applications and tools. Digital Humanities faculty and library workers.

Curricular Context

A course focused on digital humanities technologies, their impact, and their design. Approximately one 90-minute session.

Learning Outcomes

Basic Learning Outcomes

  1. Students should be able to recall the appropriate language for discussing disability rights and web accessibility as it relates to the digital humanities landscape.

  2. Students will gain a cursory understanding of the tools available to assess web accessibility.

  3. Students will be able to begin a compliance assessment of a particular digital humanities application or project.

Advanced Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will be able to compare existing accessibility tools and determine which will help their project meet the accessibility requirements they have outlined.


There are two appendices following this lesson plan:

  • Appendix A is a list of resources (and the Reference list for footnotes) for the instructor to review and become more familiar with the web accessibility landscape. Many of the suggested resources are modern, however laws and policies related to American Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance and critical disability studies change frequently, therefore it is suggested that the instructor balance these suggestions with recent studies.

  • Appendix B is a sample list containing existing digital humanities projects, web tools, and manual checklist examples. This list is easily adaptable and should be revised based on the availability of the digital humanities project.

Pre-class assignment: students should read the following discussion from Disrupting DH and be prepared to briefly discuss:

Godden, R. & Hsy, J. (2016). Universal Design and its Discontents. Retrieved from


Projector, a list of the Accessibility and Digital Humanities tools listed in Appendix B below (projected), each participant should have or be provided a device that can access the web.

Session Outline


25 minutes

Introduction to key concepts to help frame the viewpoints surrounding why we should be concerned with accessibility, and why it needs to be an active part of the project design process.

Access to information via the web is deemed a human right and many industries are built on fully digital platforms. Full and equal access to the web is an enabler of “basic human and civil rights.”2

  • “Disability is an accepted element of human diversity”3

  • From the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), “The Convention follows decades of work by the United Nations to change attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities. It takes to a new height the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as ‘objects’ of charity, medical treatment and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as ‘subjects’ with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.”4

  • From the American Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design, “Each facility or part of a facility constructed by, on behalf of, or for the use of a public entity shall be designed and constructed in such manner that the facility or part of the facility is readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, if the construction was commenced after January 26, 1992.”5

Accommodation or Ethic of Care?

Accessibility (in the United States) is often framed under the American Disabilities Act and a tool or project’s ability to comply with that piece of legislation. But is that enough? At what point do creators stop viewing persons with disabilities as a special interest group which must lobby for the rights they are already entitled to under the law? According to Teri Hibbs and Dianne Pothier, “Accommodation can be conceptualized in two broad forms: accommodation within the general standard (i.e. flexibility for all), and accommodation by means of individual exceptions to the general standard.”6

  • What is meant by ethic of care?

    • Not building things for the sake of building them, instead having an intention that relates to more or as many people as possible, i.e. building with access and equity in mind.

    • Making “variability the rule, not the exception.”7

    • Multi-modality: a way to offer an alternatively suitable piece of web content.

    • The semantic web as a concept, which can aid in understanding for those with cognitive disabilities.

    • Both universal and individualized content, i.e. semantic and a user-based website or application.

    • Cloud computing aids in this: not tied to access configuration, freedom to enjoy web content equally even through continuous change.

Universal and Specific Design

Using Universal Design (UD) as a starting place: “Mace argues for the importance of distinguishing between universal design principles and accessibility principles. To embrace accessibility is to focus design efforts on people who are disabled, ensuring that all barriers have been removed. To embrace universal design, by contrast, is to focus “not specifically on people with disabilities, but all people.”8

  • UD provides equal opportunities for learning, designing for all.

  • UD provides multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression.

  • The use of mobile devices is growing and remains to encompass more varied users. Designing for mobile is an example of embracing a varied landscape.

  • Technical issues to be aware of and potentially tackle: multimedia access and operability, navigation, comprehensibility of web content/substantive usability.

Understanding the Four Principles of Accessibility as laid out by the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3):9

  • Review (navigate to the site): perceivable, operable, understandable, robust. Notice how these accessibility tenets sound remarkably familiar to plain, old, good web design.

  • WCAG on what web content is meant to be to a user: “information sensory experience to be communicated to the user by means of a user agent (e.g. browser), including code and markup that define the content’s structure, presentation, and interactions.”

  • Review: WC3 and the diversity of abilities.10

Comprehension check/Discussion

10 minutes

  • What are some barriers to making everything completely accessible all the time? What are some ways to dismantle these barriers?

  • Keywords to help guide discussion: funding, time, staffing, expertise resources, learning curve — community driven technology, ethic of care mindset, project planning, knowledge about varying levels of need and access.

  • Discuss pre-class reading: Universal Design debates.11

  • This should be a participatory discuss, now framed by the earlier lecture/introduction.


10 minutes


20 minutes

  • See appendix B for a select list of tools and their descriptions, as well as examples of manual accessibility checklists.

  • Additionally, this is a broad list of tools from WCAG: Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools

Review manual accessibility checklist.

  • The majority of tools out there help with about 40-50% of web accessibility issues. Reviewing manual accessibility checklists before beginning a web-based project, and by implementing the changes suggested, the creator can approach their project from a Universal Design perspective.

In-class activity

15 minutes

Breakout into small groups, choose an item from the list of Accessibility and Digital Humanities tools in Appendix B below and answer the following questions together (write answers down to be turned in to the instructor). At the end of the 10 minutes of doing this, each group will elect someone to briefly describe their topic to the rest of their class based on the questions.

If you chose something from the ‘Accessibility Tools’ category, answer the following:

  • Who created this tool?

  • Is it proprietary or nonproprietary?

  • What is its purpose?

  • What are the instructions for use?

If you chose something from the ‘Digital Humanities Tools’ category, answer the following:

  • Who created this tool?

  • Is it proprietary or nonproprietary?

  • What is its purpose?

  • Is there any reference to accessible design or compliance?

Conclusion and Questions

10 minutes

  • The idea is not to create a homogeneous web, instead for creators to build more interesting sites and projects, that are also accessible (or start with Universal Design in mind). This is shifting away from the personal computer (PC) concept and into a more social space, which is inherent in a networked environment (we are computing together after all!).

  • The web is a group of abstractions, most technology is, i.e. simplified views of complicated algorithms, tasks, scripts, commands...Does interacting with that abstraction without context lead to a disconnected use of the tool? A disconnected understanding of the information?

  • Some parting ideas to think about and take into your web projects:

    • Put yourself in the place of the content users and their environments.

    • Sometimes the key success factor is access to structured training on how to use computers, or documentation. Other times it is creating environments with low barriers to entry.

    • We could/should be using machines to develop equitable environments, as opposed to individualized ones.


After the conclusion of the instruction session a survey will be sent (via email) to each attendee and will include the following questions:

  1. Before this session, how would you rate your understanding of web accessibility tools?

  2. After this session, how would you rate your understanding of web accessibility tools?

  3. Which aspects of the session were the most useful for you as an information creator?

  4. Which aspects of the session were the least useful for you as an information creator?

  5. Any other questions or comments?


Upon my own investigation into digital humanities and also web tools and their accessibility, it has become apparent that the topic is all at once broad and deep. Catering the goals of the lesson to spur accommodation and accessibility consideration is likely more realistic than asking individuals to connect with each tool for each layer of digital interaction. By interweaving the ethical considerations of digital tool use, along with practical application, digital humanities students will hopefully take holistic approaches to their own project development.

Additional Instructional Materials

Appendix A: References to Review

ADA Standards for Accessible Design (2010). Retrieved from

Blanck, P. (2017). Web Accessibility for People with Cognitive Disabilities: A Legal Right? In Lazar J. & Stein M. (Eds.), Disability, Human Rights, and Information Technology (pp. 41-57). PHILADELPHIA: University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved from

CSUN Universal Design Center (2019). Retrieved from

Godden, R. & Hsy, J. (2016). Universal Design and its Discontents. Retrieved from

Hibbs, T., & Pothier, D. (2006). Post-Secondary Education and Disabled Students. In Devlin, R., & Pothier, D. (Eds.). Critical disability theory: Essays in philosophy, politics, policy, and law (pp. 196-199).Vancouver: UBC Press.

Understanding WCAG 2.0 (2016). Retrieved from

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). (n.d.). Retrieved from

WCAG Diverse Abilities and Barriers.(2017). Retrieved from

Williams, G.H.(2012). Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities. Retrieved from

Appendix B: Examples and their descriptions to be used for the in-class assignment

Accessibility Tools

Tool: tota11y

Description: tota11y comes from the Khan academy and uses a JavaScript file to highlight web accessibility issues within a page (the file creates a native button that visualizes the various components of the page). Things like alt-text, headers, and screen reader issues are highlighted.

Tool: A11y Machine (a11ym)

Description: a11ym requires installation locally and runs a crawler across web pages, then generates an accessibility report. The machine and instructions are hosted through GitHub and are very explanatory. The report analyzes pages against Section 508, WCAG and HTML 5 WCAG requirements.

Tool: Wave

Description: Wave is available as a browser extension or as a site by site tester (see homepage). When using Wave on a site it highlights the various tags and structures to visualize whether or not page structure is compliant with things like WCAG 2.0, Section 508, etc. It helps determine both styling and color errors on a site.

Tool: Axe

Description: Axe is a Firefox extension that works when viewing the developer tools in the Firefox browser. They point to a number of potential compliance violations such as disabled zoom, headings hierarchy. It acts somewhat like Wave but uses the developer tools as opposed to annotating the page elements.

Tool: Compliance Sheriff

Description: This is the only proprietary tool on this list. The group that chooses this tool should come to the conclusion that Compliance Sheriff, although robust, is costly and take a very economic based view on why institutions should be ADA/WCAG compliant.

Tool: Aria Labels

Description: Aria labels are used in markup to semantically describe images and symbols that do not typically get described in the remaining HTML. This is useful for individuals who are using screen readers. See the linked documentation for more in depth examples.

Digital Humanities Tools

Tool: Omeka

Description: Omeka is an example of a web authoring tool that has a strong commitment to accessibility and usability. Within the site documentation the students should be able to locate the Omeka accessibility statement, which in turn will hopefully spark some of the conversation in the in-class activity.

Tool: Scalar

Description: Though a powerful web authoring tool (with the potential to be ADA/WCAG compliant) Scalar does not indicate whether or not it is designed from a Universal Design perspective, or with accessibility web authoring in mind. This should highlight to students that not all digital humanities tools aim for compliance outright, even if technically they do follow good web authoring practices.

Tool: Jekyll Static Web Pages

Description: This tool for web authoring is included because it is becoming increasingly popular in the digital humanities. Much like WordPress, it acts as a skeleton for hosting pages and relies on good markup practices to be compliant. When discussing this tool, the instructor should talk about the need to add relevant plug ins, check your own code, and employ the manual checklists to remain accountable.

Tool: ESRI Storymaps

Description: If a student chooses this tool they will answer the second set of reflection questions which ask them to find an indication of accessibility compliance. ESRI is committed to growing into accessibility compliance as opposed to engaging in Universal Design. See this ESRI blog post on accessibility.

Manual Accessibility Checklist Examples

Checklist: WebAIM Quick Reference

Description: WebAIM gathers manual checklists that check against both Section 508 requirements and suggested requirements from WC3. It is fairly comprehensive in the variation of tools (both manual and automated).

Checklist: Manual Accessibility Testing Checklist [PDF]

Description: This practical checklist integrates some of the automated tools discussed in the lecture, as well as provides in depth guidance on how to analyze media in web content.

Checklist: Web Accessibility Testing 101: A Checklist for Beginners

Description: This checklist was devised at the 2018 edX conference located at California State University, Northridge in 2018. It provides step-by-step guidance on assessing a website, while also integrating some of the automated tools discussed in the lecture.

Checklist: WCAG Techniques and Failures for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
Description: This site offers step by step guidance on web content accessibility and was prepared by a WCAG working group in 2010. The specificity of these guidelines can be overwhelming, but they act as a strong illustration of how automated accessibility tools can only discover partial content failures. The instructor may use this to highlight the need for both automated tools and a manual accessibility checklist.


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