Helen Selsdon 2014-05-27 13:09:22
As the archivist at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), I am in charge of Helen Keller’s archival collection of more than 80,000 items. Keller is famous: scholars, filmmakers, writers, and students contact us for information; scores of books have been written about her; and a movie about her childhood received an Academy Award. But she’s often depicted as a “saintly” figure—not a real flesh-and-blood woman with deaf blindness who worked hard to improve the lives of those with vision loss and change perceptions of blindness. The superhero perception of Keller diminishes her achievements and does nothing to demystify disabilities. At AFB, we believe that through complete access to her collection, users can gain the in-depth understanding of Keller that humanizes her in a way that movies, books, and articles can’t. Although the majority of visitors to our archival collections are sighted, AFB has gone to great strides to accommodate and assist researchers with vision loss. For those with low vision, we provide access to a closed-circuit television (CCTV) that can zoom in on text. Blind researchers are normally accompanied by an assistant, who will read text aloud. Similarly, deaf-blind researchers have assistants who are familiar with sign language. Though it may seem laborious to read text, the speed at which material is reviewed does not appear to be significantly slowed. Digitizing Helen Keller’s Collection AFB’s website (www.afb.org) is fully accessible to those who are blind or visually impaired, as is the online guide to Helen Keller’s archival collection, which uses standard Encoded Archival Description (EAD). The EAD allows for searches by subject, name, and place, but can only indicate which folder the item can be found in, not the item itself; the researcher or I must pull the folder to access the information. In July 2013, I wrote a grant to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to digitize the collection and make it fully accessible via the web. Because AFB did not find an archival tool that was fully accessible to those with disabilities, we set out to design our own. We continue to improve this pilot project; the site currently features 1,442 scans representing 515 items and can be viewed at http://helenkeller.dlconsulting.com/. Our web team—which is led by a woman who is legally blind—makes sure that the site can be smoothly navigated by those who can’t see, as well as by those who can. Sara White’s November/December 2013 Archival Outlook article, “Disability: Uncovering Our Hidden History,” included a survey response from an individual with a disability. When asked if archives take individuals with disabilities into consideration when designing their websites, the individual noted that “digital collections are merely scanned images of archival collections without accessible mediums.” This is a problem. The best mode for ensuring digitized documents are accessible is to include a text version of the contents; this allows readers with vision loss to use assistive technology to access online materials. Screen readers, such as JAWS or Window-Eyes software, provide sophisticated speech or braille output and a somewhat modified interface of both software and webpages. People with low vision may use screen magnification tools—like ZoomText or MAGic software—which enlarges text and images on the screen and often provides speech output. An important step in this project will be the creation of text transcriptions using Optical Character Recognition (OCR). OCR is a program that enables computers to read scanned text and spits out accessible transcriptions. These documents are then reviewed by a person for errors. (Handwritten documents are poorly transcribed using OCR and still require almost complete transcription by a person.) Other Considerations In addition to the digitization, AFB will continue to ensure that our website is accessible to users with disabilities. Web designers often inadvertently create barriers to assistive technology users or users with low vision who aren’t using assistive technology. These barriers include using color to indicate the sections of a page; labeling forms incorrectly; or using images without text labels (ALT tags), descriptions, or transcriptions. For some individuals with low vision, it can be challenging to read web materials that are composed in unusual typefaces. Accessible websites allow users to select text and transform it into a font of their choosing. Flash software that allows users to zoom in and out of an image may be useful to some users with low vision, but will be inaccessible to a user who is blind. * * * The digitization of Helen Keller’s archival collection—as with many other collections—greatly assists with the long-term preservation of information and its dissemination. But many online collections are useless to those with vision loss. Just as the Talking Book pioneered by AFB in the 1930s brought information and literature to thousands of those with vision loss around the world, today historical collections must be available to both nonsighted and sighted audiences if we are to create equal access to the vast amount of learning, culture, and education that is increasingly available on the web. To learn more about the Helen Keller Archives, visit afb.org/helenkeller.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.