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New Software Allows Visually Impaired Students Access to Old English

A new assistive technology, "Reord," has been created to make Old English more accessible for visually impaired students.

Tiarra Drisker ‘25

Rebecca Baumgarten, a student pursuing a Master of Arts in the Department of English, was in a Latin class at Texas A&M University when she realized she needed assistive technology to make Old English accessible to visually impaired students. The problem was, it didn’t yet exist.

“There were some serious difficulties with the textbook, so the people at Disability Resources had to get creative in making it work with my screen reader. They had never had to work with Latin before because so few people take it anymore,” Baumgarten said.

This is where Dr. Britt Mize and Bryan Tarpley came in. Mize is a professor that specializes in both Old English and Middle English literature and language at Texas A&M University, while Tarpley is a web developer at the Center of Digital Humanities Research (CoDHR).

“Rebecca came to me in late 2019 wondering whether there would be any way for her to take my Old English language class that was scheduled for fall 2020,” Mize said. “After some initial conversations about the inability of existing software to allow non-visual access to Old English texts, we decided to have a spring 2020 directed study course to explore possible solutions.”

With this new problem to solve, Mize took a programming language course so that he could contribute to the software’s development. At the end of the directed study course, Baumgarten had a full report on the conceptual and technical issues involved with the proposed software. Mize and Baumgarten turned this report into an application for a Summer Technical Assistant Grant from CoDHR. This grant is how Tarpley, an expert programmer, became a part of the software’s creation.

“I contributed parts of the coding but Bryan’s far superior knowledge was essential for the more difficult aspects,” Mize said.

The result was Reord, a software plugin that works with an existing open-source screen-reader called Non-Visual Desktop Access (NVDA).

The word “Reord” was chosen as the name for this software not only for being one of Mize’s favorite Old English words but because it means “voice” and also “language.”

Baumgarten says that she is grateful for her interactions with the disabilities department because it made her realize how important her needs as well as her wants are.

“Several weeks into the semester, I was on the phone with the disabilities department and apologized for giving them so much work when it wasn’t even a class I needed. The person helping me said something like, ‘Don’t apologize. You have just as much right to take classes for fun as anyone else.’”

Baumgarten said that in her experience, she always tried to make her needs as unobtrusive as possible so that people wouldn’t think she was exhausting their patience on her desires. However, the disabilities department helped her realize her needs were valid as well.

“No one has any business gatekeeping what I want to study, especially when I’m willing and able to orchestrate the project to make it accessible,” she said.

With the help of Reord, Baumgartner took Mize’s introductory Old English graduate seminar in fall 2020 successfully and continued by taking his second semester of Old English that spring.

Mize believes it is important that Old English is accessible for the same reason it’s important to make any curricular content accessible.

“The history of our language is a subject of study that has both importance, to language and literature students, and interest to a great many people,” Mize explained. “People wouldn’t say that people who couldn’t see should not be able to study genetics. Why would Old English as an academic subject be any different?”