Happy (belated) birthday: GNOME accessibility turns 6 years old
By Peter Korn on Nov 04, 2006
A couple of weeks ago, on October 19th, the GNOME Accessibility project had another birthday. Bad form of me to miss it, but when you are about to turn 39 for the second time, others' birthdays can get away from you...
Before summarizing the recent growth and gains, I thought it'd be interesting to look back on some previous anniversaries. Here is what things looked like at five years old and what they looked like at four years old. Four years after the "birth" of GNOME - and graphical UNIX - accessibility in a public meeting in Minneapolis announcing an open source effort to build accessibility into the UNIX desktop, we had one multiple awards and were shipping early versions of three assistive technologies in GNOME 2.8. We had also just begun a standardization effort around UNIX accessibility in the Free Standards Group. One year later, at the 5 year anniversary, Sun was shipping the Solaris 10 desktop with two of the aforementioned assistive technologies (and already had 2 million licensed users of that OS), Ubuntu 5.10 was shipping with early accessibility support, and we had significant adoption by the Spanish National Organization of the Blind in Andalusia and Extremadura.
Over this past year, the momentum has continued:
- The open source, scripting screen reader Orca version 1.0 has shipped with GNOME 2.16 (and is getting lots of user praise)
- A third screen reader, LSR from IBM, is in development for GNOME - further enriching the graphical screen reader ecosystem in UNIX
- A new on screen keyboards isnow in development: SOK - the "Simple" on screen keyboard, which is realized in Ubuntu as the package onboard
- Ubuntu version 6.10 is shipping, with Orca available and optionally talking at boot up from the LiveCD, and talking and Brailling through the install (making this the first evern graphical desktop that you can install using Braille, and the second one that you can install using speech)
- OpenOffice.org version 2.0.4, which now directly implements ATK and no longer needs the Java Access Bridge for GNOME - resulting in much improved performance
- A host of new, open source text-to-speech voices, including Czech, Finnish, Hindi, Ibibio, Italian, Russian, Spanish and German, Swahili, and Vietnamese, and Zulu
- DECtalk for Linux and Solaris is available, with support for gnome-speech and thereby for Orca and other UNIX screen readers
- IBM's Text to Speech (formerly called ViaVoice speech) is available for individual purchase for Linux systems, supporting Chinese, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish
- There are now over 6 million registered Solaris 10 systems, all containing the accessible GNOME desktop
In addition to all of these significant achievements, we've had a number of key meetings moving the cause of graphical UNIX accessibility forward:
- At the CSUN Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities we introduced Orca and UNIX desktop accessibility to hundreds of attendees, and gave two excellent presentations on the Orca screen reader
- At the GNOME Conference GUADEC in Spain this past June, we solidified Orca as the new default screen reader for GNOME, saw another excellent presentation on Orca by Willie Walker, and had good participation from the Spanish National Organization for the Blind who are now contributing to Orca development
- At the yearly KDE conference aKademy there were several presentations on accessibility for KDE 3.x and KDE 4.x, and good meetings with several of the GNOME accessibility team (always helps when the KDE conference is in Dublin, where the GNOME accessibility maintainer lives!)
- At the just past Boston GNOME Summit we had a dedicated Accessibility Summit. In addition to getting a lot of user and developer participation, we enumerated the pieces needed to finish building the accessible UNIX desktop, which we broke down into a formal set of projects. We also assigned action items to many of the attendees.
- At the upcoming (tomorrow!) Ubuntu Developer Summit we plan to have a number of accessibility discussions focused on moving specific technical accessibility initiatives forward
Finally, in this the sixth year of GNOME/graphical UNIX accessibility, we've seen a new battleground and opportunity in the fight over OpenDocument Format. This fight with Microsoft (who would prefer that folks not use ODF) is interesting for the cause of UNIX accessibility because it addresses one of the key reasons for folks to stay on Windows - the ability to read and write the same word processing and spreadsheet files, and presentations as their employer and their government. While we've largely moved to Web standards, and use standard e-mail protocols and standard calendar protocols (as long as or organization hasn't chosen the Microsoft Exchange Server with its proprietary protocols), we are only starting to move to a standard office document file format.
These standards are important, because when our companies and governments and organizations adopt them, they give us the freedom to choose whatever application we want to use, on whatever platform or operating system (and with whatever assistive technology) that we want. We aren't tied to an operating system that may not support our language, or find ourselves out of luck if our screen reader won't speak in our language, or find ourselves to be like one of the 70% of Americans with Disabilities who don't have the income to afford commercial assistive technology products. While Massachusetts has led the way in ODF adoption, we are also seeing this in Denmark, and in Belgium, and in Malaysia, and a number of other U.S. States and European governments and governments worldwide. Every one of these government ODF adoptions becomes a place where citizens with disabilities don't have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for access software that may not even be in their own language in order to read and exchange government documents. They become places where, with open source UNIX accessibility, we can accelerate our closing the digital divide for people with disabilities.