Free Software Foundation Appoints Director of Access Technology

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 11, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

"People with disabilities deserve to have control of their own technological destinies."

With this statement, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) announces that it is turning its attention to accessibility. In addition to explaining the important of accessibility in the newly released GNU Accessibility Statement, the FSF has appointed accessibility expert Chris Hofstader as Director of Access Technology Software, a position that combines both political activism and working directly with developers on various projects.

The appointment comes after what Hofstader calls a "leadership vacuum" in accessibility, particularly in free software. Hofstader notes that, although the United States has signed the United Nations' Convention on the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities, under the former Bush administration, American laws about accessibility in government procurement went unenforced.

Consequently, Hofstader says, third party proprietary software vendors have largely ignored accessibility in the twenty-first century. "If it's a Windows program, they'll put in just enough accessibility so that they can demo it for someone who really doesn't understand screen readers," Hofstader says. "They can demo the program, but 90% of the features are completely inaccessible. So a lot of these proprietary vendors pay lip service to accessibility. They fill out what is called a VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template, which is not a government requirement, but a voluntary thing done by the Information Technology Industry Association, and these VPATs are filled with lies."

Meanwhile, while Hofstader describes the state of free software accessibility as "poor." Although free software accessibility provides respectable functionality in the Orca screen reader under GNOME, KDE remains almost entirely unusable by those with vision problems -- to the point that Hofstader. who describes himself as "profoundly blind," declares, "I've never seen the KDE desktop."

Individual applications vary as much as desktops. For example, Hofstader describes OpenOffice.org's word processor as being "on par" with proprietary rivals. By contrast, he says that OpenOffice.org's Calc is "very accessible, but poorly usable," in the sense that it follows all the accessibility guidelines, but lacks many of the tools provided by JAWS, the leading accessibility software on Windows.

Moreover, rumors persist that, in the upcoming GNOME 3.0, developers are not "paying much attention to accessibility. The Orca project has also suffered in the last couple of years from the loss of funding from former supporters like IBM. More recently, Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems have resulted in the dismissal of Orca project leads such as Willie Walker and Mike Pedersen.

"Talk about a digital divide," Hofstader says, emphasizing the need for more accessibility development. "When I walk up to a computer and it does not have a screen reader installed, I can clack around on the keyboard and turn it on and off, but I can't use it all."

A background in accessibility and free software

The FSF's new Director of Access Technology Software has a background in accessibility and free software dating back almost twenty-five years. The writer of Blind Confidential, a gonzo blog that is hilarious and thought-provoking in turns, Hofstader has been working on accessibility issues for most of his working life. Among other positions, he has been Vice President of Software Engineering for Freedom Scientific, the developers of JAWS, as well as a researcher for the Trace Research and Development Center, one of the major academic organizations for studying accessibility issues. He is also a member of several accessibility groups, including Raising the Floor and National Public Inclusive Infrastructure (NPII), although he is not currently active in most of them.

Hofstader has a mixed reputation, with some people accusing him of being irascible and domineering, but there is no reason to doubt his self-description as one of "maybe half a dozen in the world who really, really, really deeply understand audio user interfaces at the [highest] level. All six of us are friends and communicate all the time."

This position can lead to delicate situations. For example, although Hofstader emphasizes that he in no way supports Apple and Microsoft products, their accessibility efforts command his professional respect. "I don't endorse them at all," he says, "But Microsoft has done a pretty good job in this area, and recently Apple has done an excellent job." He also claims that recent Apple products have implemented "ideas I had published years earlier, and I have to admit that I'm happy and proud to see them," adding that none of the long-time figures in accessibility are "terribly possessive of a concept."

At the same time, Hofstader has been associated with free software since 1987. Reading about Richard M. Stallman, the FSF's founder in "The Last True Hacker" in Computer Language, Hofstader wrote Stallman a letter, and soon struck up a friendship with him.

"Richard is an amazing person to have in your life because of his integrity and unquestioning dedication to his cause," Hofstader says. "I mean, everybody has a price -- except him."

Hofstader's friendship with Stallman led him into free software. "I fixed a few bugs," Hofstader recalls, "but mostly I was involved in the activism side. For instance, in 1989, he founded the League for Programming Freedom with Stallman.

Talking to Stallman about the recent problems with free software accessibility, Hofstader suggested himself as a suitable advocate. "A lot of people who had been contributing to free software accessibility are no longer there. There's this leadership vacuum, and someone's got to fill it, and a lot of people know me. They know I'm pretty controversial, which fits me right in with the GNU people," Hofstader recalls telling Stallman. "We've been friends a long time, and we trust each other, so here, why don't you give me a title and a gnu.org mailing address?"

Setting priorities

Hofstader was hired by the FSF on 1 March, 2010, but, aside from an entry on his blog, the news was left unannounced until he and Stallman had crafted the GNU Accessibility Statement.

According to Hofstader, his first priority as Director of Access Technology Software is to provide public comment on the current joint rewriting of Section 508 of the American Federal Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Telecommunication Act, both of which deal with accessibility for government procurement. Because the two sections are increasingly overlapping, they are now being rewritten together.

Hofstader sees this effort as a new channel for promoting free software. "Our number one priority is getting through [the public commentary process], and making sure that the comments are in line with our beliefs, and that we can promote free software through the federal procurement process, which no one's every tried before. There's a lot that free software does that proprietary software doesn't, so we may be able to jump ahead of the line."

These efforts are aided by the fact that the Free Software Foundation is working with the employee responsible for compliance with these acts at the Veteran's Association. Because of the therapy and retraining that the Veteran's Association does, it "is one of the power agencies in terms of disability," Hofstader says. "Having their coordinator working with us is really nice. I mean, they have people who can assign different pieces. We don't. So they will be able to help us with the breadth of the standard."

Once the public commentary is concluded in mid-June, Hofstader expects to move towards assisting development in Orca, GNOME, and applications to enhance accessibility.

"Some of the biggest accessibility problems on a GNU/Linux system is actually bugs," Hofstadter says. "So there's a lot of things that can be done relatively easily. I think we have 1000 one-hour bugs. Then there's making sure that every aspect of applications is reasonably accessible."

Hofstadter's self-appointed goal is to have accessibility options as a standard part of the installation program in distributions, just as they are in Apple's OS X, by CSUN 2011, the major accessibility conference in North America. -- in other words, within the next eleven months.

"One of the things that people love about the Apple accessibility software is its independence," he says. "Independence is huge in this community in terms of value. If we can get users to install directly from a DVD, without having a sighted person there to help them, we've at least tied Apple at startup."

Other initiatives Hofstader plans includes raising developer awareness through blog posts and a wiki, and building a database of free software accessibility resources. According to him, vast accessibility resources already exist here and there in free software, but "no one's out there directing traffic. It's like trying to run across the Champs D'Elysee."

Obviously, considerable work needs to be done on free software accessibility, but Hofstader is confident that it can be done in a matter of two to three years.

"None of these features are hard to implement," he says. "They're hard to imagine. It's the choosing and design process rather than implementing those features that arre hard. Give me Orca, GNOME, a few apps, and ten volunteer hackers, and I'll show you what accessibility means."

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