During the first few years of the 21st
century, there was a great deal of discussion concerning the
state of readiness of GNU/Linux for the mainstream desktop and
how it could be furthered. An
published in LWN almost a decade ago, is typical of
the period. Today, with Linux happily ticking away on many
end-user desktops and in many schools and libraries, one can no
longer doubt that, though world domination may yet be a long way off,
presence certainly has been achieved.
This achievement might well in turn
lead to even greater recognition and could conceivably take the
open desktop from the average user's computer to deployment in
large, non-technically oriented corporations and governmental
institutions. However, such a possibility brings up a question
which may very likely have eluded many key players in the various
free desktop communities: Are the various environments on offer
as accessible as they are appealing and functional?
In the computing world, accessibility generally refers to the
concept of allowing as wide a range of users to interact with a
system as possible, either through initial design or through
hardware or software palliatives, generally referred to as
assistive technology. The special needs of users can vary
greatly, but, in general, can be categorized as physical,
perceptual, and cognitive. It follows that, in order for a
system to be accessible, it must be capable of adapting and
catering to such needs, which might imply as simple a feature as
the ability to customize the blinking rate of a cursor in order
to avoid triggering epileptic seizures or as complex as offering
a fully voice-operated system to provide a working environment to
a blind person also lacking the use of her hands.
Creating a system
capable of accommodating even a subset of users requiring
accessibility features is therefore a vast undertaking. This, however,
may well be a task which the free software community needs to
address seriously, not merely for the good of its users, but to
ensure its credibility as a viable alternative to mainstream,
proprietary platforms as well.
The legal angle
In the early 1990s, many governments introduced legislation
seeking to protect the rights of people living with disabilities;
the "Americans with Disabilities Act" (ADA) in the US
and the "Disability Discrimination Act" (DDA, since replaced by
the "Equality Act 2010") in the UK are typical
outcomes of these efforts. One of the important issues these laws
were trying to address was that of discrimination in the
workplace and the right to equal employment opportunities for
disabled people: the wording of
Titles I and IV
of the ADA, for instance, reflects such an attempt.
efforts were a vast step forward, but they also came at a time
when the workplace was about to be drastically transformed by the
rise of the internet and the desktop computer.
The laws enacted
still implicitly required employers to provide accommodations to
their workers in the fulfillment of their duties, regardless of
whether those duties necessitated the use of a computer or not.
Sadly, this was not made very clear to either employer or employee
and could depend upon one's interpretation of the text: see, for
this out-law.com article
discussing the relevance of the DDA to networking and computing
in the British workplace and some of the areas left
Clearly then, legislation needed to catch up with this new situation
and specifically address the requirement for accessible
computing and information in a working environment. Perhaps the
first to react to that conclusion was the US Congress who
responded with its adoption of the
Section 508 amendment to the
"Rehabilitation Act" in 1998, which essentially requires
governmental agencies to provide accessible electronic
environments to their employees and offers guidelines to that
effect. This amendment, directly or coincidentally, seems to have
set the tone for similar policies and laws to be enacted or
amended in the 21st century.
Take, for instance, the Canadian federal government's
"Policy on the Provision of Accommodation for Employees with Disabilities",
which seems to be an echo of Section 508, or Germany's far more
which makes "barrier-free information" one of its key concerns.
More recently, in the Canadian province of Ontario, the
government adopted the
"Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act".
This is an interesting piece of legislation insofar as it
devotes a great deal of attention to equal access to information
and communications in private and public employment as well as
education, and refers specifically to software and self-service
kiosks. Such laws, whether in North America or Europe, whether
they apply solely to the public sector or to all organizations,
do form a clear trend, and it is to be expected that more and
more legislatures will follow suit, either at the local or
The legal obligation for an employer to provide an accessible
platform impacts all software, free or not, of course;
unfortunately, free software platforms like GNU/Linux face an
inherent disadvantage with regards to accessibility:
the lack of third-party proprietary solutions. None of the
mainstream commercial platforms had much stock accessibility in
the beginning, some still do not, but they all almost immediately
benefited from third-party offerings to bridge these gaps.
now know from experience, proprietary software on open desktops
is scarce; commercial developers are difficult to entice and
their reception by the community, should they take the plunge, can be rather
mixed. The practical upshot of this is that it is highly
unlikely that any assistive technology software vendor will step
forward to fill the accessibility gaps on the open desktop. That leaves
the responsibility to the community and associated
commercial interests. Failure to provide adequate and easily
integrated accessibility, however, could very well one day lead
to a disaster scenario. An early convert to the free
desktop could be fined or forced to provide a more accessible,
commercial platform, thereby seriously undermining the credibility
of free software as a worthwhile alternative in the workplace.
Where we stand
The next logical question is, "How are we doing and how far do we
still need to go to achieve standards compliant accessibility on
the open desktop?" In some areas, the progress
has been very positive, whereas others seem to be experiencing
difficulty coalescing into a meaningful movement.
Visual accessibility on the Linux console has now been adequate
for over a decade, with long-standing projects, such as
providing advanced screen reviewing
functionalities through braille or speech. Reasonably good
text-to-speech (TTS) processing has also been available for some
time through such free software synthesizers as
This means that, when the time came to develop the
screen-reader for the GNOME desktop, well-tested output
mechanisms already existed and could easily be integrated,
allowing developers to focus on interface-related accessibility.
Orca itself has been gaining in stability and functionality
steadily over the last few years, making critical applications,
like Firefox and the LibreOffice suite, functionally available to
the blind and visually impaired. Recently, as part of an
in GNOME, many bugs and shortcomings of Orca
have received some attention, and the underlying accessibility
framework and libraries it employs,
fully integrated in GNOME 3.6, becoming formal dependencies.
This is very positive because, in the
of Joanmarie Diggs, the main Orca developer:
As a result, leaks, performance
issues, and crashes that used to be "just our problem" are now
everyone's problem. And many people who are not "accessibility
developers" are starting to pitch in and fix accessibility
GNOME is not the only desktop environment accessible through Orca; there
have been some efforts in other quarters, with the
inclusion of preliminary accessibility support through AT-SPI in
version 4.10 of Xfce4 and the early development of a
This is all very good news for visual accessibility, but weak areas
remain. There is no accessible PDF reader for the
open desktop, for instance, and the accuracy of optical character
recognition (OCR) software is improving at a very sedate pace.
Yet these would be crucial applications to a visually impaired
person in virtually any modern working environment.
have been recent examples of decisions by distributors which can
affect out-of-the-box accessibility in a negative manner, such as
the likely decision by Debian to make Xfce4 its default
desktop environment in Wheezy, or the announcement by the Ubuntu
team that the historically more accessible Unity 2D desktop will
no longer be distributed as of release 12.10.
The bulk of the recent accessibility improvements to Xfce4 were
introduced in version 4.10; however, Wheezy will be shipping the
older and virtually inaccessible 4.8.1 release. As for Unity 3D,
Luke Yelavich, an Ubuntu accessibility developer, made it
that he does not expect it to be as accessible as Unity 2D
until the next LTS release.
more accessible environment can usually be installed with
reasonable ease, such decisions could result in a poor
first impression for an inexperienced user and a wrong assessment
of the level of accessibility available on the platform.
Such complaints are minor, however, when comparing the state of
visual accessibility with that of physical palliatives; here, the
results of GNOME's accessibility efforts seem to be rather mixed.
Components key to accessibility
for physically disabled people, such as the Dasher predictive
text input engine or the Gnome-voice-control application do not
seem to have undergone significant development, or indeed a
release, in over a year and appear to be stalled just at the
brink of basic usability.
This stall leads to a difficult situation,
because the very people needed to test the software and provide
feedback and bug reports cannot quite use it without significant
help, thus placing a barrier on further development. If that barrier can be
accessibility efforts will hopefully pull together and achieve the same
kind of momentum seen with GNOME, Orca, and various related
In the meantime, many interesting projects are still being
developed and sponsorship can help nudge them in the right
speech recognition project was part of
the Google Summer of Code this year, for example, while the
gaze tracking project received some support from
accessibility improvements in
Such support not only benefits projects directly, but
also serves to give them visibility, which can help attract
potential users and contributors, thus building a stronger
The matter of accessibility is by no means the only stumbling
block on the road to a wider adoption of the open desktop;
however, with ever more stringent laws regarding accessibility in
the workplace and an aging population likely to require an
increasing level of accessibility from public services, it
certainly is not an issue likely to fade away of its own accord.
It may well be that solid, out-of-the-box universal accessibility
is not something which can be achieved by one FOSS project, but
requires a greater level of collaboration and concerted vision
across all the projects and sub-communities which make up the
open desktop as we know it.
Comments (10 posted)
If you want to pick a fight, insult a designer by asking why
we don’t “just learn to code.”
— Crystal Beasley
If we are at a point where we are fighting for a proposal to
get or be defeated by a 50/50 vote, then we have lost focus on
the far more important issue: being the Samba Team.
Comments (8 posted)
The third release of the Plasma Active "device-independent mobile user
experience" system is
from the KDE Project. It includes a lot of improvements, new
features, and some new applications (including a file manager inevitably
called "Files"). "Okular Active is Plasma Active's new Ebook
Reader. Okular Active is built on the technology which also drives the
desktop version of the popular Document Viewer, and is optimized for
reading documents on a touch device.
For more information, see this
post from Aaron Seigo. "Unlike traditional file managers, Files
doesn't directly expose the file system. We see that as an implementation
detail like 'which kernel drivers are loaded.' Yes, it's needed for the
device to function, but the person using the device shouldn't have to
care. Instead, Files promotes meaning and content. On starting Files, you
select what you wish to view such as documents, images, music, videos,
Comments (131 posted)
Version 0.99 of the Wayland protocol and Weston compositor implementation
have been released. "We now have responsible error handling, we have a well-defined
atomic update mechanism and event dispatching is thread safe. I've
been very happy to see the effort and the amount of patches on the
list recently, and without that we couldn't have wrapped up the
protocol and client API changes in time.
" The 1.0 release is to be
expected before the end of the month.
Full Story (comments: 57)
Version 3.1.3 of gnutls is available. Improvements include support for DANE, a protocol used to verify certificate validity with DNSSEC, and the OCSP Certificate Status extension.
Full Story (comments: none)
Newsletters and articles
Comments (none posted)
Wired features an editorial from Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin, who writes about the emerging competition in the automotive software platform market. "As automakers get into the computing business, the biggest hurdle they have to overcome isn’t each other – it’s consumer expectations driven by the rise of ubiquitous mobile computing. This is where I’d argue the battle between open and closed is going to play out the hardest in coming years … the next OS wars." As one would expect, Zemlin highlights the benefits of openness, and Linux in particular.
Comments (none posted)
Christian Schaller writes
about why we don't have good video calling yet
and what is being done
to get there. "In addition to the nitty gritty of protocols and
codecs there are other pieces that has been lacking to give users a really
good experience. The most critical one is good echo cancellation. This is
required in order to avoid having an ugly echo effect when trying to use
your laptop built-in speakers and microphone for a call. So people have
been forced to use a headset to make things work reasonably well.
Comments (97 posted)
On his blog, Tiago Vignatti compares the soon-to-reach-1.0 Wayland API against the existing X.org API, which is about 15 times larger. "Although X and Wayland’s intention are both to sit between the applications and the kernel graphics layers, a direct comparison of those two systems is not fair on most of the cases; while X encompasses Wayland in numerous of features, Wayland has a few other advantages" — chief among them, of course, is a much simpler API.
Comments (none posted)
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