This is a guest post by Sarah Blake LaRose.
As a scholar of biblical studies who is blind, I often receive questions about how to make ancient texts and tools accessible for others who have disabilities. The fields of ancient and classical studies are impacted by lack of awareness of what people with disabilities can accomplish with implementation of good technology. The field of ancient studies relies heavily on images of manuscripts, maps, and archaeological exhibits. People with disabilities rely on staff who are not familiar with their own field of study to provide accessibility services; and specialized hardware and software for people with disabilities may or may not interface well with software and websites that are used every day in our work. Accessibility for people with disabilities has remained shrouded in mystique instead of becoming a normalized practice.
If implemented, the practice of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) will alleviate accessibility challenges faced by many people with disabilities and also increase the efficiency of work for all scholars.
UDL is a method of accommodating students with a variety of learning needs, including but not necessarily limited to disability. It anticipates the presence of people with learning needs instead of reacting to them. It is accessible, flexible, and functional and engages the learner via multiple modalities.
UDL is a strategy that allows a variety of needs to be met in a variety of situations.1 It is often implemented to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Students may not disclose their disabilities, and their disability-related needs may change over time.1 Wynants and Dennis demonstrated that it is useful for meeting the needs of second language learners, who may master the use of written text before spoken language.2
UDL has long been known to provide empowerment to all learners. It empowers people who work in situations where all types of access are not equal.3 Some examples follow:
Traditionally, scanned PDF images have been treated adequately for sighted users. Transcriptions of text in classrooms have been treated as disability accommodations. It is perhaps understandable that low priority is given to the importance of transcriptions of ancient texts and reference materials. PDF image scans are often the only available sources of ancient documents that have been archived. These images are valuable to many people. However, the size of the PDF files can create difficulties for people with limitations on data usage. The lack of machine-readable text also creates limitations for all people: If the text has not been recognized and edited, the PDF file contains only an image and cannot be read by screen readers or indexed for searching. Transcriptions, or alternate text formats, make machine-readable text formats of scanned images available for everyone to use.
If a presentation uses video, it may be thought that captions are needed for people who are hearing impaired. Yet studies have shown that users who need to work quietly or who have limited English proficiency also use text captions.3 Captioning makes the presentation multi-modal and increases its impact for all users, not only users with disabilities.
Many things can be done to increase accessibility and usability of products and tools in ancient studies. Often these things have been relegated to open-source platforms where volunteers are relied on to provide the most important aspects of accessibility, such as transcriptions and image descriptions. This practice is understandable given the lack of funding for projects that generate copious amounts of text via optical character recognition which then must be corrected.
Many sites that provide access to digitizations of ancient texts use scanned images and rely on open-source provision of transcriptions and correction of errors made by optical character recognition. Tufts University describes a multi-step process for implementing an open-source system to give the most comprehensive information about scanned images and texts: Perseus.
Ancient Lives (currently being rebuilt after a hiatus) is an example of one such project that invites contributions from the public to transcribe the Oxyrhynchus Papyri at Oxford for publication. Other similar projects are described by Sarah Bond in “Working Together to Transcribe Ancient Documents During COVID.”
The challenge with using volunteers to transcribe text from manuscript images is that it leaves the transcription lagging behind for people who need it quickly. This makes the biblical scholar who relies on transcriptions unable to perform research.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion have become important topics as we hold discussions around the world about saving the field as a whole. The same processes that empower people with disabilities to access ancient texts also often empower people with limited data speeds to access text. Much of my experience is with empowerment of people with disabilities through my work as a braille transcriber and assistive technology consultant. I have also taught theological courses in Pakistan via remote connection. My Asian students have been as eager to access biblical study resources as students who are blind are. In forthcoming posts, I hope to provide some tools and strategies that make the process of accessibility for everyone easier.
Sarah Blake LaRose has taught biblical studies courses at Anderson University (Anderson, IN) since 2015. She has provided braille transcription services for the biblical studies and classics communities since 2009 and is a member of the committee which developed braille code for the Syriac, Coptic, and Akkadian languages. She is also a founding board member of CripAntiquity. You can follow her on Twitter.
1. Edwards, Miriam; Poed, Shiralee; Al-Nawab, Hadeel; and Penna, Olivia. (2022). Academic accommodations for university students living with disability and the potential of universal design to address their needs. Higher Education, 1-21. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-021-00800-w.
2. Wynants, Shelli A. and Dennis, Jessica M. (2017). Embracing Diversity and Accessibility: A Mixed Methods Study of the Impact of an Online Disability Awareness Program. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 30, 33-48.
3. Burgstahler, Sheryl; Corrigan, Bill; and McCarter, Joan. “Making distance learning courses accessible to students and instructors with disabilities: A case study.” Internet & Higher Education, 7 no. 3 (Jul 2004), 233-246. DOI: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2004.06.004.