Helen Keller at the Union of the War Blind in Paris, 1946. She is with French veterans blinded during World War II, one of whom is playing the piano.
In June 2018, more than a century after she was born, an enormous amount of Helen Keller's archive is available to everyone all over the world with an internet connection; this ‘miracle work’ has happened by virtue of digital technology, the will of an organization, the resolute eyes and hands of transcribers and the endless energy of an archivist and her team.
As a deafblind French researcher, I am absolutely thrilled by this announcement. This archival collection may be as paradigmatic and exemplary as its producer was. However, I will not focus here on the way the collection can provide important resources on disability history and women’s history – though these are important topics! I would rather discuss how exceptional this project is from an accessibility point of view.
"Nothing about us without us" is the well-known demand from the disability community. Preserved and digitized under the patronage of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)—the digital Helen Keller Archive is oriented towards this standard—indeed, how absurd it would be if the archive of a deafblind icon were not accessible to visitors who are blind, deaf, hard-of-hearing and deafblind!
In fact, the Helen Keller digital archive is pioneering; it is opening a new path thanks to the collaborative efforts of AFB, Hudson Archival, the digitization company photographing all the materials and Veridian a software design company creating the interface. According to Helen Selsdon, the archivist, the results are setting a new gold standard for accessible historical collections.
As a deafblind researcher working in the field of deaf history, I have experienced how difficult it can be to navigate a physical archive. Dusty and crumbling materials are tricky at the best of times, they are even more impenetrable if verbal communication with an organization’s staff is impeded. Moreover if a visitor does has some vision, their ease of access and comfort is often compromised by poor facilities with low lighting and lack of assistive technologies such as screen readers.
Unfortunately, most websites also still remain inaccessible to those with vision and hearing impairments. So imagine my amazement when I arrived at the Helen Keller Archive. I discovered that (deaf)blind users of the internet can easily use its accessibility functions (text zoom, color conversion, keyboard commands and braille convertibility). This is still scarce in today’s internet. But what I find most thrilling is not this—it is the omnipresent conversion of visual information and data into verbal equivalents. And this conversion is directly offered to the public—the (deaf)blind visitor does not need to come with his/her reader or interpreter. He/she can directly access the visual documents. This is thanks to the transcriptions—which he/she is free to use as he/she wishes, whether by visually reading the text, listening to software-generated synthetic speech or accessing it using a refreshable braille display. Moreover, AFB has a host of volunteer transcribers, who are taught how to transcribe handwritten documents that cannot be easily deciphered by computer technology.
As a historian and a deafblind activist, I am fascinated by all the technological and theoretical issues and puzzles this project brings to light. Not only does it show that technology combined with human capability can create advances in accessibilty, it led me to think about many other issues: the use of language to accurately describe visual imagery; decisions around selecting and creating a hierarchy of information to best describe a digital image and lead the researcher to the information they are searching for; how braille is definitely not designed according to sighted standards – capturing a braille image involves complicated lighting of the item and a transcription is then created by a person who can sight-read braille. I hope that scholars will think more about these intriguing issues; I would also be very interested to hear from volunteer transcribers—what have you learned from this challenge and what questions do you have?
This mammoth project has resulted in innovative practices. AFB is hoping this project inspires other organizations, libraries and historical collections to make their materials accessible to everyone as well. I look forward to reading the guidelines that AFB is creating. I hope these will be disseminated to non-English speaking audiences—and why not in sign-languages as well?
Although a lot more work remains to be done, the digital Helen Keller Archive marks an important milestone in the fields of archival research and disability history.
Note: Soline Vennetier is a PhD candidate at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris.