March 18, 2006

FOSS community, disabled users must learn to communicate

Author: Marco Fioretti

Accessibility is an increasingly important issue for free and open source software (FOSS) developers and advocates. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed standards for ensuring that software is accessible to people with disabilities. Governments around the world often require that software procured for public use must meet or exceed accessibility standards. Disabled users and the FOSS community, however, still have a serious communication problem.

An example of the need for better communication between the FOSS community and disability advocates emerged last year, when government officials in Massachusetts announced their intention to transition to the use of OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument). FOSS supporters celebrated the announcement, noting that the switch would reduce public expenditures, guarantee perpetual access to data, and end discrimination. FOSS supporters, however, were unprepared for criticism from organizations that fight discrimination against the disabled, such as the Disability Policy Consortium (DPC) and the Bay State Council for the Blind (BSCB).

OpenDocument is a well-documented, modern, rich file format that can be used with any software program. Currently, OpenDocument is undergoing an accessibility review process. Some of its components, however, have already passed the W3C's Wide Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

Last November, FOSS and industry representatives met with Massachusetts officials and representatives from disability rights groups such as the DPC and BSCB. The meeting revealed that the FOSS community fails to understand or appreciate the needs of disabled users, and that the disability community lacks interest in FOSS.

According to an unofficial report on the meeting, FOSS supporters explained the relationship between the ODF, open standards, and accessibility standards. FOSS advocates also outlined the technical limitations of proprietary software such as Microsoft's products. They maintained that accessibility in Microsoft Office has often been the result of reverse engineering, which must be done with each new release using tools from third-party vendors. The FOSS advocates also pointed out that the adoption of a FOSS-based accessibility infrastructure would open more jobs to disabled users, in positions such as Unix systems administration and Web site design.

It didn't matter. Disability advocates confirmed the position expressed in the Joint Statement on OpenSource & OpenDocuments in Massachusetts:

Without advanced training to develop a qualified pool of talent, new hires for state government agencies with OpenSource, OpenDocument platforms will be everybody but people with disabilities because of perceived or real training requirements. People with disabilities will not be on hiring lists for years to come.

Actually, according to the report quoted above, the disabled users at the meeting just summarized this position in a clearer way, if one that might be shocking for FOSS fanatics: "Variety is bad, we don't want to have to change." Even if Office 12 will force them to change anyway, the disabled representatives request that, as a minimum, "all ODF applications have common functionality and [...] the same keyboard shortcuts".

In general, FOSS developers strive to meet accessibility standards. is compatible with the JAWS screen reader, for instance, though problems remain. The Free Standards Group's Accessibility Workgroup (FSGA) has asked for feedback on drafts of accessibility standards for Linux and Unix.

To understand the objections from disability rights advocates, we can look at the experiences of two disabled computer users in Italy, Fabrizio Marini and Paolo Pietrosanti.

A blind Italian Linux newbie

My first direct contact with accessibility issues was last summer, when I responded to a request sent to a local LUG by computer science student Fabrizio Marini. Marini needed someone to install SUSE 9.2 in dual boot mode on his PC and then download, compile, and install the driver for his Braille terminal. I volunteered to help with the job. Since then, another Linux user, Fabrizio Sebastiani from LUG Roma, has also worked with Marini, helping him master Linux.

Marini was very pleased, for example, when he managed to make GRUB beep at the right moment. Now he knows for sure when it's time to select the operating system; he no longer has to guess based on hard disk noises. Recently, Marini tweaked Mutt and Postfix configuration files in order to make email work under Linux. To do all this, Marini has also been relying on "Appunti di Informatica Libera" ("Notes of Free Information Technology"), a guide to GNU/Linux that is an astonishing 8,839 pages long.

While proud of his accomplishments, Marini also feels that the situation is far from optimal. For instance, he has not found "a distribution that boots" and detects "Italian speech synthesizers, or Braille terminals with the brltty driver." For now, Marini says that the only solution is to find somebody without impaired vision who is willing to help install Linux.

After installation, Marini contended with the same problems other novices face. "Most Linux documentation is still too technical and difficult for newbies," Marini said. For blind users, there is the added burden of dealing with resources that aren't really accessible, including, ironically, some online documentation for Linux-compatible assistive technologies. Sure enough, when I read this, I did recall many a beginner's tutorial which was mostly a sequence of screenshots.

Marini is still testing speech synthesis and screen reader programs for Linux. His first impression is that, again, variety is not necessarily a good thing:

There are many projects, but all seem started with ambitious goals and then stopped more or less half way before being really usable. In my opinion, if more developers focused on only one product, or at least less of them, things would go better.

A political point of view

Paolo Pietrosanti, a member of the General Council of the Radical Party, became blind in 1993. This made him realize that "the disabled must be turned from costly assisted persons into taxpayers." Two years ago, the City of Rome announced that it would move some services to FOSS platforms. While GNU/Linux fans were celebrating, Pietrosanti asked in an open letter to Rome's mayor, "Do you know that choosing Linux means excluding blind users?" His arguments were similar to those presented in Massachusetts.

Pietrosanti has nothing against free software. "What really matters to me," Pietrosanti says, "is to establish and guarantee the right to access (both to information and to jobs), and the penalties when it is violated." Pietrosanti wants to ensure that open standards don't exclude disabled users from jobs and, if they do, he wants mechanisms in place so disabled users can sue to defend their rights.

Pietrosanti is equally indifferent to the heated debates over which operating system is superior. As he puts it, no one "outside of a madhouse would ever waste time figuring out which car model is better when the nature of the streets they will be used on must still be decided."

He gets to the heart of the issue when, just like FOSS supporters, he puts it in terms of freedom. "Proprietary or free (as in freedom) software are really the same to me. What matters is the actual freedom of each individual." As an example, his home page denounces the fact that, even in a digital world, blind users still aren't free to read everything -- not because of licensing issues, but because "this society is so insane that, not forcing all content to be available in digital format, practically forbids reading to blind users."

Pietrosanti says he can already do what he needs to do with his Windows system and software. What is the real issue, Pietrosanti asks: "The way the software was developed and distributed, or the way it limits or protects my rights?"


Both in Europe and the US, there is still much to do to reconcile disabled users and the FOSS community. Disabled users fail to perceive that they have the same needs and rights as everybody else, including full control of, and long term access to, government and their own private documents; or the fact that some types of software can create more local jobs than others, even for them. Such inattention can cost a lot in an all-digital world.

At the same time, there is no doubt that current FOSS-only platforms are not ready for many disabled users. Disabled users may be helping the FOSS community, or at least a large part of it, to finally acknowledge a general attitude problem. Pietrosanti's "actual freedom" reaction is not the one of a person with special needs. It is the same that most non-geeks would have when reading the GNU Manifesto, and this doesn't mean that they are stupid. Very likely, many office workers would like to sue, or at least to stop, any manager who told them, "next month you will have to use programs you never heard of before, with a different look and feel, because of some policy based on obscure theories about software engineering." Disabled users have the actual legal weapons to do it.

In the meantime, how can the FOSS community address the issues of the disabled? The most urgent task is to improve documentation. Perhaps you can make it a personal goal to be able to configure your favorite FOSS tool blindfolded while someone reads your improved instructions aloud. Your local LUG could organize ways to connect volunteers to assist disabled users with installations. Be sure to contact local disability rights groups to let them know what you're doing. They may also be able to provide more feedback about needs in your community.

For the long term, we also need to lobby for more public funding for research projects that advance the development of the FOSS accessibility infrastructure. Another move that would solve a lot of problems could be to legally mandate that only accessibility software that also works with and Linux can be purchased with public money. If you have other suggestions, I welcome them. Please also let me know of any future cooperation between FOSS and disabled users.


  • Free Software
Click Here!