GNU appoints Chris Hofstadter their Access Technology Director, releases Accessibility Statement

The GNU Project is at the heart of Free and Open Source software - the philosophy behind many specific open source efforts and software - things like the Firefox web browser, the OpenOffice.org office suite, the Java environment, and of course the GNOME desktop and its included accessibility functionality (things like the Orca screen reader and the Dasher alternate text entry system). Earlier today, the GNU Project issued a press release naming my friend and colleague Chris Hofstadter their Director of Access Technologies. Along with this announcement, they also released the GNU Accessibility Statement.

The GNU Project definition of Free Software sets forth "four freedoms" that must be present for something to be considered "free software". As I have traveled the world meeting with folks with disabilities, GNU's "freedom to run the program, for any purpose" has typically been the first attraction to GNOME accessibility and the accessible applications like Firefox and OpenOffice.org. This freedom means that a blind Czech waitress doesn't have to spend 80% of a year's salary in order to purchase a commercial screen reader.

But the brilliance of their definition is that it doesn't stop there. It is the next three freedoms - (1) to study how software works and change it if you like, (2) to redistribute copies to help your neighbor, and (3) to distribute copies of your modified versions - that have provided access solutions to folks who would never have them - because their country or language represents too small a market for commercial access solutions, no matter what the price. These freedoms have meant that GNOME and included access features are being translated into 161 languages. When paired with the growing body of eSpeak text-to-speech languages (among others), Free Software is making technology available and accessible for the first time to folks who speak Afrikaans and Catalan and Croatian and Swahili and Tamil (among others) - all places where the blind had no options. For folks who use alternate text entry, the list of languages / locales that have access for the first time is larger still (essentially the majority of the 161 languages GNOME is being translated into).

So it should come as no surprise that the GNU Accessibility Statement notes that:

According to the United Nations in 2005, there were 600 million people with disabilities in the world. To use computers, many of them need special software known as “access technology”. Like other programs, these can be free software or proprietary. Those which are free software respect the freedom of their users; the rest, proprietary programs, subject those users to the power of the program's owner.

When the program owner decides what languages and countries get access, the result has been that too many of the 600 million people who need it get left out in the cold. As noted further down in the GNU Accessibility statement:

People with disabilities deserve to have control of their own technological destinies. When they use proprietary access technology, they have little or no way to correct whatever is wrong with it. Virtually all major decisions of the proprietary developers are made by people who do not have the disability; 20 years' experience shows that people with unusual combinations of disabilities, who require relatively unusual software, or who encounter a bug that keeps them from doing their job have no way to obtain the changes they need. These products are only changed or improved when the vendors see a business reason for doing the work; this leaves many users behind. As a secondary problem, proprietary access software is far more expensive than a PC. Many users cannot afford to give up their freedom in this way.

For users with disabilities, as for all other users, free software is the only way the users can control their own computing, their only chance to make software fit their needs rather than passively accepting whatever developers choose to offer them.

The GNU Accessibility Statement closes with several recommendations. For programmers, their recommendation is to use an accessibility API that is compatible with free operating systems and desktops. Their recommendation is to use the GNOME Accessibility API, the Java Accessibility API, and the IAccessible2 API (depending upon the platform and desktop in question).

The most rewarding aspect of my career in access technology has been my involved in the development of all three of these APIs, and the collaboration with colleagues at Oracle and IBM and the Linux Foundation and the GNOME community in the ongoing maintenance and improvements in these pivotal APIs that are central to free and open source accessibility.

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