Accessibility: When Do We Want It? Now!

Last year, I ran into a colleague at a restaurant in Des Moines that I had yet to meet. Don’t worry, she assured me, I will email you soon about joining the Accessibility and Disability Task Force. I didn’t think much of it at the time (We were at a cheese store, and I was far more interested in the cheese than anything else), until shortly thereafter, the phone calls and meeting requests started. I initially suspected that my boss had thrown me under the bus in what was clearly going to be a time-consuming amount of committee work (a theory he denies), but soon enough I was going on retreats and attending sub-committee after sub-committee meeting.

I went through a couple of phases during this work. Initially, I was all for it. I spent years in high school volunteering at the Deaf Services Bureau in Miami, I was a nanny for a special needs child– I am all for inclusiveness. This was something that I was going to enjoy working to promote.

Then I learned what accessibility actually entailed. I became intimately acquainted with the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative, all sorts of new acronyms like WCAG 2.0 and VPAT, and the many, many laws regarding accessibility. It became clear that I had a very limited understanding of what accessibility meant and what was needed to provide equal access for students with disabilities.

My experience is not, I think, uncommon. I asked a friend of mine what they were doing at their college about accessibility, and she said that since they were on a hill, they really couldn’t do anything. Many of us are, I suspect, terribly ignorant. Well-meaning, yes, but sorely underprepared to face and redress the situation.

And I think my next phase is also one that many people go through. For once I understood the full scope of accessibility, I balked. Why are we making such an effort for such a small segment of the population? Why do faculty need to completely re-develop their assignments because one student has low vision? Why do we have to spend so much time making such minor changes to the CSS of a website? Do we really have the budget for this?

For a while I struggled with what I perceived to be the competing interests of the goals of the task force and the inventiveness and creativity of digital humanities. Then finally it dawned on me that the goals of each were not at odds, but one and the same. At its best, digital humanities is committed to openness, equal access, and the transformative potential of the digital. That’s precisely what we were asked to provide for all our students through the task force. And, really, shouldn’t this be something we are all in favor of?

At the end of the day, does it take more time and effort to develop digital humanities projects that meet accessibility standards? Yes, it does. Luckily, we have a fantastic team of people here at Grinnell who help to make that happen. Moreover, we want everyone, from the creators to the users of digital humanities projects, to be able to access them. How can we resist becoming part of the structures that continue to reinscribe oppressive relations of class, disability, and ethnicity if we do otherwise?