Accessibility of the Helen Keller Archive

What Is Digital Accessibility?

By “accessibility,” we mean the design and development of a website that allows everyone, including people with disabilities, to independently use and interact with it.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) specifies that people should be able to:

  • Perceive
  • Understand
  • Navigate
  • and Interact with the web, as well as
  • Contribute to it

Why Is Inclusive Digital Design Important?

Accessibility broadens the potential audience that can explore a digital archive:

But there are additional compelling reasons to make a digital historical archive meet the highest accessibility standards:

  • Cross-browser and cross-device compatibility: An accessible site works well on mobile phones and desktops and refreshable braille devices alike. The design flexibility and rigorous code standards required to support the technology that some people with disabilities use to access a site also make a site work well on small screens and less common browsers that might not otherwise be tested.
  • Search engine optimization: An accessible site is a discoverable site. Accessibility techniques are also search engine optimization techniques. Correct markup, description of meaningful content, and explicit labeling all improve what a search engine can identify within a site and display to users. Images are minimally searchable, while rich, detailed descriptions of an image make the full context of the picture discoverable via search engine. The text transcript of a video makes the full content of the video discoverable to searchers, and makes the video usable to archive visitors who cannot hear or see. Furthermore, visitors who cannot see images, or cannot decipher handwritten cursive text, will rely on text descriptions and transcripts for that information.
  • Disability-specific content: The historical role that Helen Keller played in the disability rights movement, and at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), is of particular interest to people with disabilities, especially sensory impairments. It was crucial that AFB make the recent history of disability rights and social and technological developments for people with disabilities fully available to researchers and audiences directly affected by this history.
  • The law: Website accessibility is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (as amended), Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (as amended), and other international laws and policies.

Most importantly, inclusive digital design is simply the right thing to do. (Plus, there’s no visually discernible difference between websites or mobile apps with accessible designs!) When a web page is properly coded, following W3C standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), users who are blind or deafblind can use their own technology to access the site independently, via magnification, synthetic speech, or refreshable braille devices. As such, the careful transcription of all materials in the Helen Keller Archive was essential to making these primary sources accessible to all.

Why Was the Digital Helen Keller Archive So Groundbreaking?

The Helen Keller Archive’s commitment to accessibility was a groundbreaking project in three ways:

  1. The content is accessible.
  2. The interface is accessible.
  3. We tested extensively with users and then made additional changes to ensure that the interface is also user-friendly.

Accessible Content Means:

  • We used optical character recognition (OCR) to create an initial transcript of thousands of Helen Keller’s papers — letters, draft speeches, receipts, and more.
  • A massive volunteer effort helped correct the errors that inevitably occur during OCR — and is still an ongoing effort!
  • We also are working hard, with both volunteer and professional help, transcribing all the handwritten and braille documents OCR technology can’t handle.
  • Trained staff created detailed descriptions of every photo to make the visual contents of the archive searchable, and accessible to people with visual impairments.
  • We are very lucky to have films of Helen Keller in the archive, and to make those accessible for all users we created digital videos that are captioned, transcribed, and audio-described.
    • Captioning makes the audio content accessible to users who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, or simply in a setting where it’s hard to hear. Everything that is said aloud in a video is also displayed as text onscreen.
    • Video description is similar to captioning, but for blind people — it is an additional audio track that provides an audible description of what is happening visually. Try listening to a video without watching it. Does it still make sense? What information is missing, that was only conveyed visually? That’s what needs to be audio-described.

      Here’s how it works: someone watches the video and writes short verbal descriptions of the action or other key visual information such as the setting, costumes, and facial expressions. A narrator then records those descriptions, and an editor inserts the audio descriptions into pauses within a program’s dialogue. (Sometimes it is easier to insert the descriptions at the very beginning or very end of a shorter video.) You can learn more at

    • Transcripts help everyone — they are important not only for searchability, but also accessibility. A person who is deafblind could navigate the Helen Keller Archive and access all of the information in photos and videos by using a refreshable braille display to read the transcripts in dynamic braille output.

Accessible Interface Means:

  • The website uses valid, properly labeled HTML on every page.
  • The multimedia controls are all keyboard-accessible, so people who don’t use a mouse or can’t easily see the controls can still use keyboard controls to zoom in to a photo, zoom out, enter full-screen mode, start and stop the video player, etc.
  • We made the keyboard shortcuts easily discoverable by making them visible on the controls. You’ll notice them on the image viewer, for example: try using “control + alt + z” to zoom in on a photo.
  • For people navigating the site with screen readers, we made sure to provide a way to skip over repetitive elements such as the main navigation, and even the “refine search” options.

Testing for Usability:

  • To test the design and interface adaptations of our beta site, we recruited 18 users from a wide variety of backgrounds — archivists, the general public, students, writers, and historians.
  • Testing took place one-on-one, remotely (over the phone) so that users could access the site on their preferred technology, in a comfortable setting.
  • Our participants included a mix of people who were blind, low vision, sighted, hard of hearing, deafblind, and quadriplegic.
  • We recruited across a wide age range, as well — from a 10-year-old student, to college students, professionals, and retirees.
  • User testing revealed inconsistencies in our coding approach – both approaches were technically accessible, but the variations forced people to do too much mental work to figure out the page. Making it more consistent improved the usability.
  • We also made some design changes to improve the discoverability of rich features, like the refine search options.

This project is a constant work in progress. We still have many handwritten documents to transcribe, and we continue to be in communication with the academic and disability community on best practices for meta-tagging and annotation. Any mistakes are ours alone, and we commit to remedying them. Please let us know if you find any issues! You can write to