Digital History for Visually Impaired Students: Making Learning Meaningful
As a visually impaired Ph.D. student in George Mason University’s history program, I have experienced firsthand the benefits of digital history. Assistive technology, such as software that provides audio output of what is on a computer screen, allows me to independently access online digital archives containing newspapers, government records, and personal correspondence. Improved optical character recognition (OCR) in scanning programs and software applications that extract text from a digital image of a document have expanded my ability to mine sources that have yet to be formally converted to digital formats. E-books and services such as BookShare.org and LearningAlly.org give me the opportunity to read current scholarship on the topics I’m interested in. Indeed, the “democratization of history” that scholars such as the late Roy Rosenzweig and Ed Ayers first spoke of nearly two decades ago has greatly enhanced the ability of those with print disabilities to participate in and contribute to important historical debates.
Yet my own experience also shows that these advancements are heavily skewed towards the consumption of history. Progress on making opportunities for producing history, beyond the traditional means of conveying scholarship, accessible for visually impaired students have lagged. This essay offers some reflections on my recent experience as a producer of digital history and suggests some ways that visually impaired students and faculty can work together to ensure a positive and useful outcome.
My first experience with producing digital history came several years ago at George Mason University when I took a required course entitled “An Introduction to History and New Media.” The University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for New Media and History (RRCHNM) maintains a close relationship with the department of history and art history, working together to ensure that students are exposed to the latest trends, techniques, and tools driving advancements in digital scholarship. This course provides students with a theoretical foundation of what digital history is before moving to a discussion and demonstration of tools such as Voyant, Storyboard, and Omeka. As a final project, students design and build a digital representation of one of their existing research papers or a collection of primary sources they are using in their research. Final projects are presented to the class and the presenter receives feedback from classmates and faculty.
The class provided me with a window into digital history, something I had given little thought to previously, but it also generated frustration that made me skeptical of my ability to incorporate and use digital tools in my own work. This skepticism resulted from two related factors. First, most, if not all, of the tools utilized in the class were geared towards the production or arrangement of images. For a visually impaired person, this presents a host of issues. On a broad level, it raises questions such as: How could I identify which images I wanted to use? How could I ensure the arrangement of those images facilitated the telling of the story I wanted to tell? Second, on a more functional level, I faced issues using the tools to manipulate images and build the digital exhibit. My assistive technology either did not work with these applications or, if it did, the audio output was not sufficient to allow me to independently determine if the project “looked” the way I wanted it. As a result, I had to rely on family members (most of whom have little experience with digital tools and have no interest in history) as well as Digital History Fellows at RRCHNM to build my project. My role was essentially limited to identifying the sources I wanted to use and drafting a written plan that my “assistants” could use to guide the assembly of the final output. Short of having my “assistants” verbalize what they saw and, in some cases, relying on their judgment about how something looked, I had little input into the actual construction of the exhibit, a fact that made me question the overall value of the class for my learning needs.
A year or so later, with a fair amount of apprehension based on my previous experience, I decided to take another digital history course, Digital Storytelling, as an elective. As with the first course, Digital Storytelling led off with a number of readings and class discussions meant to get students thinking about what digital history is and offer some examples of the ways it can support the dissemination of historical knowledge to audiences outside academia. Much of the discussion focused on how historians employ film genres, such as documentaries and mockumentaries, to reach a wider audience. The class culminated with students presenting a digital story based on primary-source research. In this case, however, students were expected to move beyond a simple digital depiction of historical data or images and produce a ten-minute movie in one of the genres we studied throughout the semester.
Naturally, the emphasis on producing a film generated more than a few questions for me. How, for example, would I go about filming something I couldn’t see? How could I take advantage of various types of camera angles, lighting, and scenery to convey my message? Intellectually, I understood how filmmakers could employ these elements to influence the audience, but it’s quite another thing to use these techniques if you are visually impaired. To allay my concerns and work out a strategy that would facilitate my full participation in the class, I met with the professor several weeks before the semester began. After discussing my research interests and the capabilities and limitations of my assistive technology, she suggested that in place of a film, I produce a podcast. Producing a podcast would afford me largely the same experience as my sighted colleagues, though mine would be centered on sound rather than video.
With this suggestion, I set out to construct a podcast based on my research examining the content and tenor of Independence Day celebrations in the antebellum south. I pulled together a series of speeches and editorials from Independence Day celebrations printed in newspapers between 1826 and 1860; recruited some of my fellow history colleagues to record themselves reading the material; and found music written during the time period to serve as background. After pulling together this material, I worked to assemble it into a coherent presentation that was engaging and clearly conveyed my argument. This is where my difficulties began. Several of the audio editing programs I attempted to use were only minimally functional with my screen reading program, especially when it came to cutting, fading, and otherwise adjusting the audio to make for a smooth presentation. Again, thanks to assistance from my wife and colleagues at RRCHNM, I overcame this obstacle and submitted a fairly clean presentation on time.
Despite the technical difficulties encountered in the Digital Storytelling class, the overall experience offers three important points for visually impaired students seeking to participate in digital history as well as for faculty who may have them in class. First, on a macro level, digital history should not be synonymous with visualization. Many of the digital tools available make it easier to arrange data and images to present new ways of visualizing the movement of people and commodities, for example, but this is only a small slice of what digital tools can offer. My podcast, rudimentary as it is, illustrates the ways in which the spoken word and music can work together to make a scholarly argument and teach about a historical event or trend. Both media require the historian to engage in interpretation and analysis as well as to think creatively about how to craft a message that is in conversation with the historiography of the topic and is easily accessible to a more general audience.
Second, communication is essential. Students need to provide faculty with an honest assessment of their capabilities and limitations as early as possible, ideally before the class begins. I had several conversations with the faculty member teaching Digital Storytelling long before the first day of class. We talked through the learning objectives, assignments, and goals for the class. Students can offer proposed solutions to potential problems and, working together, they can find ways to accommodate or adjust assignments. Many teachers may have little to no experience with visually impaired students, so it is incumbent on the student to think creatively about ways to accomplish the learning objectives. For their part, faculty members need to ask questions and think creatively about assignments. What do they want students to learn? To take away from an assignment? Having a full understanding of the student’s capabilities and limitations is critical for developing workable solutions that allow the student to fully and effectively participate in class.
Third, students and faculty need to be flexible. I could have very easily been told to proceed with the production of a film, but how much would I have learned? By making a slight adjustment to the class requirements, I was permitted to engage with the historical material in a way that gave me more agency, even considering the problems of compatibility between the audio editing software and my assistive technology. For example, rather than being forced to wrestle with decisions about light and camera angles, which ultimately would have been up to the judgment of my peers, I had to consider how background music could set the mood for each segment of the podcast and determine which of my student readers sounded most appropriate for each speech or editorial they read. I had to think about introducing a speech excerpt and framing the written word to engage listeners in vocabulary and cadence not familiar today. Flexibility also is key for the student. I, and other visually impaired students I know, strive to be as independent as possible. However, students need to accept that full participation in a particular activity might require outside assistance. Accept that assistance and take ownership of it. Shape it in a way that allows you to remain in command of your project because, ultimately, it is your work.
In my final reflection for the digital storytelling course, I wrote, “I quickly discovered that producing a digital story is completely different than writing a history paper.” I have years of experience writing papers, crafting arguments and building historical narratives. Creating a digital story pushed me to think about history, and about presenting history digitally, in new ways. I struggled to present an argument in an engaging way to a listener while letting nineteenth-century subjects speak for themselves. I went through many drafts aiming to provide enough narration to help the listener pick up on the nuances and key points that supported my argument while leaving room for the audience to hear the voices and the words, to absorb the music of the era, and to draw their own conclusions.
Creating a digital story gave me a new appreciation and a practical understanding of the potential of presenting historical scholarship digitally. With a little more practice and an audio editing program I can use independently, I would not hesitate to continue my journey telling the past digitally.
Andrew Salamone is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University in Fairfax Virginia. He is currently writing his dissertation on Independence Day celebrations in Alabama and Mississippi between 1820 and 1890. He lives in Burke Virginia with his wife and nine-year-old son.