Graphic: How to make historical documents accessible for low vision

How to Make Historical Documents Accessible for Vision Impairment

Using free assistive technology resources to make primary sources accessible for vision impairment.

Ever since I joined a student-run bipartisan think tank at my university last year, I have become very interested in policy work and learning about how government and public service programs came into existence. One of the most common sources that I use for learning about historical or specific/obscure information is presidential libraries, which have both in-person locations and digital databases with tons of primary source documents, photos, and multimedia recordings. At first glance, these types of materials may seem inaccessible for someone with vision impairment and making them accessible can seem impossible. However, with the help of assistive technology, anyone can learn how to make historical documents accessible for vision impairment. Today, I will be sharing how to make specific historical document types accessible for people with vision impairment.

Why are historical documents different than standard documents?

Historical documents often have restrictions on how they can be scanned in or copied, and finding accessible copies of more obscure documents can be highly difficult. In addition, people that are visiting historical libraries often don’t have large amounts of technology with them, and librarians may not be trained in accessibility either. This post focuses on quick, free ways to configure historical documents so that they can be enlarged or read out loud while preserving them for future generations.

Physical typed documents

Documents that were written using a typewriter or printed out from a computer have the benefit of having uniform letters and size, unlike handwriting. For this reason, they are a great candidate for being scanned in using OCR so that text can be enlarged or read out loud. Since documents can be too fragile for traditional scanners, I like to use the app Microsoft Office Lens, which makes scanning as easy as taking a picture. I also have had great luck using a scanning pen like the ScanMarker Air, which can read information out loud or have it exported into another document- though make sure to ask permission before using it. Read more about Microsoft Office Lens here and the ScanMarker Air here.

Digital documents

Digital documents, such as those found in presidential library databases, are often scanned in and exported as a PDF for users to access. A major benefit of this is that text is often able to be highlighted (so it can be copied and pasted) and users can zoom in on documents as well. Text can also be read out loud by a screen reader or by using the read aloud feature in a web browser, like in Microsoft Edge. Another benefit of having digital text is that users can make text easier to read using free online tools- read about my favorite tools that make online text easier to read here. Each person has their own preferences, but some examples of how to make text accessible is by increasing the font size, choosing an easily readable font (read more about easy to read fonts here), changing the page color (read more about colored backgrounds here), and using increased spacing between lines.

Handwritten documents

While I am able to read large text with ease, I find it difficult to read handwriting no matter how large it is. Often times, handwritten documents have poor contrast due to age or limited writing utensils, with common examples being brown text on yellow paper, gray text on white paper, and faded blue text on gray paper. One of the tools that I have found to be the most helpful for reading handwriting is the app Seeing AI, which can read handwriting with high accuracy out loud- read more about Seeing AI here. If I want to read the text myself and not have it read out loud, I will either take a photo or find a photo of the document and then use the negative/inverse display mode on my device and zoom in on text as needed. This is not a perfect method though, so finding typed transcripts of handwritten text is often the best way to read these types of materials.

Digital videos

Many digital videos in presidential libraries and similar databases feature captioning, which is not very helpful for people with vision impairments. However, there are frequently transcripts that accompany these historical videos that can provide details about the background, scenery, and who is talking- I will have a post about how to convert a transcript for the hearing impaired into audio description for the visually impaired soon.  For students sensitive to flickering or flashing lights, some historical videos may trigger adverse reactions because of floaters on the screen, changing lighting conditions, camera movement, and flash photography- read more about photosensitivity in the classroom here.

Physical pictures

Almost all historical images feature black-and-white photography, which can be blurry or difficult to see for someone with vision impairment- read more about simulating vision conditions using photo editing here. While I have used the Seeing AI image description feature to figure out what is in a photo, I mostly rely on image descriptions from librarians, teachers, and museum curators to fully understand a physical image. Important items to have in an image description include:

Read more about writing image descriptions and alt text here.

Digital pictures

As images are digitized, researchers include alt text and image descriptions alongside the image, which makes the images easily accessible for the visually impaired. I like being able to see images though, which is why I will download the highest resolution image that is available, or that my wifi can handle. From there, I will zoom in and examine details of the image as needed. Read more about the importance of high resolution images here.

Digital audio recordings

Digital audio recordings don’t need to have anything fancy done to them to make them accessible to the visually impaired, but they need to have an accessible audio player to accompany them. If possible, I download audio recordings and play them in the default app of whatever device I am using, since many websites feature audio players with very tiny buttons and make it hard to rewind/fast forward. Another benefit of using my own audio player is that I can slow down audio tracks in the advanced settings menu, making it easy to type out information as I go along.

Physical maps

Maps frequently feature lots of fine lines and small details, which can be daunting for someone with a vision impairment. When I was reading a map of a president’s house, I used a CCTV that was provided by the library (not my personal one) and adjusted contrast and clarity as I went along. Another library had a tactile version of the map available, which was awesome because I could feel around and understand where certain landmarks were. Outside of the library, I have also helped create tactile maps using everyday objects- read more about creating tactile images here.

Digital maps

Believe it or not, I use many of the same tips and tricks to make digital maps accessible as I do to make digital music accessible. This is because both types of documents are highly detailed, and no detail can go unaccounted for, as opposed to a page of text where one letter can be cut off and the reader will still likely understand the text. Increasing contrast, enlarging print and images, and adding color are all extremely helpful for making maps and music easier to see and interpret. To learn how to make maps easier to navigate, read more about learning how to make music accessible here.

Thanks to assistive technology and the work of research librarians around the world, it is now easier than ever for people with vision impairments to access historical documents and learn more about the past, whether it is while sitting in a library or while sitting at the computer. Learning how to make historical documents accessible for vision impairment is an incredibly useful skill to have, and I hope that over time more databases will be expanded to include accessible materials for all.

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,
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