April 7, 2008

Orca accessibility app makes a whale of an impact

Author: Bruce Byfield

Many people know that free and open source software (FOSS) plays a role in creating the technical infrastructure of developing nations and in preserving endangered languages. With the Orca screen reader, FOSS takes on the new role of providing access to computers and the Internet to people with disabilities. The project is quickly catching up with proprietary accessibility options, and is already being widely deployed as a low-cost alternative.

Willie Walker, the Sun employee who coordinates the Orca project, explains that involvement with users with disabilities has been a deliberate policy in the three years of the project's existence. "A lot of the commercial applications that are shipping today tend to be done by people without disabilities telling people with disabilities what they need. As a result, people are getting stuck with what they have, and it's harder to change things after the fact."

To avoid this problem, the Orca project began with a small focus group of about 10 people who used screen readers in their daily life, and gradually built a community in which the normal etiquette was to suggest solutions when commenting on a problem. The result today is a small but passionate community of several hundred people. The project forum averages 20-30 questions a day.

Although Walker tried to approach interaction with the community without expectations, the resulting feedback was sometimes a revelation. "As a sighted person, what I learned was that some things that I thought important weren't really that important, and some things I didn't think were important were important." He cites, for example, the importance of placing key interface information first, and in a consistent position.

Orca encourages people with disabilities to assume positions of leadership in the project. For instance, Sun employee Mike Pedersen, who uses Orca's speech and Braille capacity and is completely dependent on the software for his work, is the project's usability lead. Similarly, Marco Zehe, who describes Orca as "indispensable" to his computer use, has been prominent in the last few months in helping Firefox 3 become more usable with Orca. This practice, according to Walker, "Not only lends credibility to the project, but it also makes sure that the decisions are being made by people who have been using screen reader technology their entire life."

Challenging proprietary solutions

Largely as a result of such practices, Orca is rapidly emerging as a major competitor to proprietary screen readers like JAWS for Windows. "We're closing the gap very, very quickly," Pedersen says. According to Zehe, the one major feature that was missing until recently was "compelling Web access," which he feels is largely addressed in Firefox 3 and the recently released GNOME 2.22.

Orca has a decided advantage over the proprietary alternatives, according to Janina Sajka, the open accessibility chair at the Linux Foundation. "Microsoft-based AT [accessibility technology] has actually not developed much in the past dozen years. Still based on a 1996 technology called Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), it is not well poised to deal with today's desktop challenges such as mashups and live regions." Recently proposed extensions to MSAA to add access to Open Document Format are a direct result of work done by the Linux Foundation, a fact that suggests that FOSS-based AT is starting to lead development instead of playing catch up.

At any rate, Sajka says, "AT is still only really available to the more affluent disabled consumer. Given that more than 70% of people with disabilities are unemployed, very few among us have the economic resources, let alone the technical sophistication, to benefit from the power of technology. The user of Windows-based AT is at least $1,000 away from a usable desktop after coming home from the local computer store with the latest and greatest PC. They are generally also on their own to install and configure the rest of what they need. Orca, Gok, and all other Linux-based AT, on the other hand, are part of the distribution."

Because FOSS accessibility is evolving so rapidly and is available at no cost, applications like Orca are starting to receive notice in the general community, and are rapidly being deployed. Walker recounts how at the CSun Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference, his annual talk on Orca has gone from having a small audience to an overflowing crowd in three years.

In addition, as Spanish communities in Extremadura, Andalucia, and Madrid are starting to use free software, the ONCE Foundation is supplementing the general effort by ensuring that students with disabilities ranging from mild vision problems to total blindness can participate in computer activities in the classroom through speech synthesis or Braille readers, according to Francisco Javier Dorado Martinez, an active member of the Orca community. For many of these students, not having Orca, as Martinez says, would be like "you haven't a screen in your computer."

Remaining problems

Despite the rapid deployment of Orca, problems remain. Both Pedersen and Martinez stress the ongoing need to educate the developers of other applications on how to make their applications interact with GNOME's accessibility framework. "We're not going to be in the business of rewriting interfaces for all applications, or of writing customized interfaces for all applications," Walker says. "We want to be able to make sure that people with disabilities have access to the same application that's on the grass root desktop." Fortunately, the problem is not so much hostility as ignorance, and Pedersen reports that once an accessibility bug is filed, most developers are more than willing to resolve any problem.

One of the major problems remains the ability for voice synthesis or Braille readers to identify complex formatting. Zehe says, "One function I am missing from Orca is the ability to list certain types of HTML content and quickly jump to it, like links, form fields, and headings." Pedersen notes that much the same problem exists with complex formatting in OpenOffice.org Calc and Writer.

In general, too, other applications require improvement for people with disability. Pedersen notes that, since the Adobe Acrobat Reader has "accessibility issues that they aren't addressing," improving accessibility in the Evince document reader remains a basic necessity. Several people interviewed for this article also suggested that the Yelp help system in GNOME requires modifications.

However, the largest problem is that Orca works only with the GTK toolkit, which means that the applications available for people with disabilities can be limited. Popular programs like GNUCash and Skype, for instance, remain unusable. An especially large problem is KDE applications, which are built on the Qt toolkit, and therefore not supported by Orca. Since KDE has focused on educational programs for some time, the inability to use KDE programs with Orca is a particular problem in the school environments in which Martinez works. Sajka says that the Linux Foundation's efforts to provide accessibility standards may eventually alleviate this problem.

Preparing to surpass

Despite these limitations, support for Orca and a belief in its potential remains high in the community. Zehe notes, "One big advantage that Orca has over proprietary solutions is that it is open source. If a problem is discovered,it does not take half a year or a year to fix it and make the fix available to everyone." Pedersen adds, "Our users just love the fact that if they want to use the bleeding edge, they can report a bug and get a fix in a few days."

In fact, for many, the absence of the profit motive in FOSS makes it ideal for accessibility development. Zehe says, "The collaboration possibilities that open source projects make possible are always aimed at benefiting the end user first and foremost. I have even seen developers of competing Linux distros collaborate on certain accessibility aspects because it would benefit the users of their distributions. And with that being the primary motivation, the accessibility world is a better one in the open source realm."

With the advantage of FOSS development, Pedersen believes that the moment is coming when Orca will exceed proprietary accessibility solutions in every aspect, although he declines to predict an exact time.

Meanwhile, Walker speaks for many in the Orca community when he says, "We know this is a difficult project, and that we're not done, and that we never will be done. But we have the passion, so everybody's going to keep working away at it. And with the really positive community that we have now, it's really easy to wake up in the morning and get to work."


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