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Showing the Accessibility Way: IBM Contributes Project Missouri to the Free Standards Group

OpenDocument and OOXML

Updated 12:00 ET to include information from the IBM and FSG press releases (both have been appended as well)

Elizabeth Montalbano at ComputerWorld wrote a piece yesterday about a thus far little noticed project with the enigmatic name "Project Missouri."  How little noticed?  I just tried a Google search of "'project Missouri' IBM ODF" and found…just Elizabeth's article.

What is Project Missouri, and why the odd name?  The title of the ComputerWorld article will give a first clue:  IBM project aims to help blind use ODF applications.   As you will recall, ODF accessibility has been a big issue in Massachusetts, with the community of the disabled, as well as ODF opponents, challenging the Commonwealth's decision to convert to ODF-compliant software products until such time as these products become as accessible as Microsoft Office.  

In response, a number of ODF proponents – including IBM – pledged to make ODF not only the equal of, but superior to, Microsoft Office with respect to accessibility.  Opponents scoffed, and hence an accessibility project that puckishly borrows its name from the hard to convince midwestern locale that refers to itself as the "Show Me State." 

The Missouri Project is only one of a number of ongoing initiatives intended to enable improved accessibility for ODF compliant products.  OASIS, which developed and maintains ODF, is supporting a number of these efforts.  Version 1.1 of ODF, which has already been adopted as a Committee Standard at OASIS, already includes features based on these efforts.  This new project supported by IBM specifically addresses the needs of visually impaired users, and is developing APIs (application programming interfaces) that have been named "IAccessible2."   As reported by Montalbano:

These APIs will make it easy for visuals in applications based on ODF and other Web technologies to be interpreted by screen readers that reproduce that information verbally, IBM said. 

IBM spokesman Ari Fishkind said that in the past it has been hard for screen-reading technology to keep up with the advent of cutting-edge development and file formats such as ODF, AJAX (asynchronous Javascript and XML) and DHTML (dynamic hypertext markup language). The latter two technologies allow increasingly complex visuals to be rendered in Web browsers, and those are difficult to translate for screen readers, he said. 

iAccessible2 not only will help ODF communicate better with screen readers that assist blind computer users, but it will also allow charts, pictures and other visuals based on AJAX and DHTML to be discerned by the visually impaired through those readers. "It's like a universal decoder ring," he said of iAccessible2. The technology is based on interfaces IBM originally developed with Sun Microsystems Inc. to make programs on Java and Linux platforms accessible to the blind. 

Mozilla Corp. also intends to integrate iAccessible2 into its open-source Firefox Web browser, Fishkind added.

press release was posted by IBM just now, as well as another from the Free Standards Group (each is reproduced at the end of this post).  The two releases provide a great deal of additional detail beyond those included in the ComputerWorld article, including the following more detailed explanation (from the IBM release) of what IAccessible2 is intended to do, and how, and by whom:

IBM today announced that it has developed software interfaces that will make it easier for assistive technologies to provide those with disabilities access to advanced features in software programs -- such as editing functions, hyperlinks, charts and menus. These features can be found in rich browser applications based on DHTML, AJAX, and WAI-ARIA, and desktop applications based on the OpenDocument Format.

The new application program interfaces, designed for Windows and dubbed IAccessible2, have been accepted by the Free Standards Group, which will develop and maintain it as an open standard, available for all to use.  Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, IBM, Mozilla Project, Oracle, SAP, and Sun Microsystems are the first to back the technology, and will be involved in developing it as an industry standard, or use it in products with which they are associated.

Assistive technologies, such as screen readers, enable the blind to use computers by verbalizing information such as text and graphics controls provided by an application such as a Web browser or word processing document. Until now, assistive technology programs have required constant, custom modifications to keep up with new versions of software applications, with new document formats and operating systems, and with the interactive way electronic information is presented today.

Furthermore, efforts to provide access to these types of applications have required non-standard means that may vary between applications and between versions of applications -- and are sometimes error-prone. Features and information in rich text documents that are difficult for those with disabilities to tap include headings and captions in tables, fonts, text colors, text selected for cutting and pasting, hyperlinks, and caret location.

Many browser-based Rich Internet Applications or Web 2.0 technologies, such as AJAX (which enable bursts of information, commentary, and live updates on a Web page), don't have standardized programming interfaces to communicate behind the scenes with assistive technologies. They cannot easily say what is occurring on-screen and how interactions on a static portion of a Web page may affect a "live" region on another.

By standardizing the interfaces, and with the stewardship of the Free Standards Group, assistive technology vendors now have a more consistent, less expensive way to easily extend their software for new technologies and computer operating systems. Likewise, mainstream software application vendors can more easily extend their programming interfaces to communicate with assistive technologies.

The FSG press release provides further information on future development and maintenance of IAccessible2, and on why IBM selected FSG to host the work:

The interfaces will be housed within the FSG’s Accessibility Workgroup, which has been standardizing interfaces to make applications on the Linux platform accessible to those with disabilities since 2004. This effort was accelerated by the need to produce accessible productivity software based on ODF to meet the needs of municipalities such as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which has mandated the use of open standards such as ODF.  

“The Free Standards Group and the Accessibility Workgroup is the perfect place to standardize and develop this new technology,” said Richard Schwerdtfeger,  Accessibility Architect and Strategist at IBM. “Their mission of improving access and choice for all computer users and developers fits perfectly with this initiative. We chose the FSG to develop and maintain this technology as an open standard because they have the greatest amount of experience maintaining open source standards, especially for those with disabilities, and have proven they can rally the industry to their projects. With the combination of Linux and Windows accessibility API open standards we see the FSG as an established hub for accessibility interoperability standards which are harmonious across the platforms. IBM is a proud member of the FSG, and we look forward to working with them on enhancing access for all computer users.”

“We are extremely proud IBM has chosen the Free Standards Group, out of the many standards setting organizations available, to house and develop these donated software interfaces,” said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Free Standards Group. “This donation is extremely important to application developers and the disabled community. Our mission is to provide the greatest amount of access to all computer users: open standards like the ODF and LSB enable unfettered access to technology and data. IAccessible2 will ensure those who are disabled get access to the widest number of
applications.”

The IBM press release also mentions the relevance of the intiative to recent and continuing events in Massachussetts:

IAccessible2 complements a proprietary application program interface, called Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), and therefore lets companies continue to benefit from their Windows investments. IAccessible2 is based on open technology that IBM originally developed with Sun to make Java and Linux accessible to those with disabilities. Once implemented on Windows, it will be easier to adapt individual applications for accessibility on other operating systems, potentially creating business opportunities for multi-platform application developers.

This effort was accelerated by the need to produce accessible productivity software based on the OpenDocument Format (ODF) to meet the needs of municipalities such as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which has mandated the use of open standards such as ODF. The technology makes browsers such as Firefox, and formats such as ODF -- used in open source productivity suites like OpenOffice.org or commercial messaging environments such as IBM Workplace -- relate more automatically and more fully to assistive technologies such as JAWS, MAGic or Windows Eyes.

The IBM press release also reveals that the work to date was performed by Lotus engineers in Boston and Beijing, as well as by accessibility experts in IBM's Emerging Technologies group and in IBM Research, many of whom worked previously to make Java, Linux, Firefox, and Rich Internet Applications more accessible. The work was validated by Freedom Scientific and GW Micro, each of which will support IAccessible2 in products designed for blind and low-vision users.  The release includes accolades from a diverse group of representatives, most significantly including several from associations representing those with disabilities.

I'm particularly happy about this project, because IBM and the other companies developing IAccessible2 (they include Sun, Oracle Corp. and SAP AG) chose the Free Standards Group to host the continuing development of the project (I am legal counsel to FSG, as well as a Board director).   FSG creates standards for Linux and other open standards, and therefore will provide a savvy and enthusiastic home for the project, given its technical origins in Linux technology.  FSG is also an approved PAS process submitter, and has a successful track record of submitting standards to ISO/IEC for adoption (FSG's Linux Standards Base standard has already been approved by ISO/IEC)  As stated by FSG Executive Director Jim Zemlin in the IBM release:

IBM's contribution of IAccessible2 will enable the Free Standards Group to extend the benefits of free and open technology to the overwhelming majority of computer users with disabilities, regardless of their OS platform. Users will have more accessible applications to choose from, developers will find it substantially easier to support multiple operating environments, and institutional IT departments will find it easier to meet legal mandates for accessibility. We are extremely proud to work with IBM on this important open standard.

This latest announcement on accessibility won't be the last, as supporters of ODF continue to take their accessibility pledge seriously, as do the developers of the various proprietary and open source implementations of ODF, each of which is pursuing its own efforts to make ODF software the productivity suite of choice for the community of the disabled. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

IBM Helps Disabled Users Get More From Assistive Technology, on More Computer Platforms

IBM Gives New Technology to Free Standards Group to Maintain as Industry Standard; Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, Mozilla, Oracle, SAP and Sun Are First to Back the Technology

ARMONK, NY - 14 Dec 2006: IBM (NYSE: IBM) today announced that it has developed software interfaces that will make it easier for assistive technologies to provide those with disabilities access to advanced features in software programs -- such as editing functions, hyperlinks, charts and menus. These features can be found in rich browser applications based on DHTML, AJAX, and WAI-ARIA, and desktop applications based on the OpenDocument Format.

The new application program interfaces, designed for Windows and dubbed IAccessible2, have been accepted by the Free Standards Group, which will develop and maintain it as an open standard, available for all to use. Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, IBM, Mozilla Project, Oracle, SAP, and Sun Microsystems are the first to back the technology, and will be involved in developing it as an industry standard, or use it in products with which they are associated.

Assistive technologies, such as screen readers, enable the blind to use computers by verbalizing information such as text and graphics controls provided by an application such as a Web browser or word processing document. Until now, assistive technology programs have required constant, custom modifications to keep up with new versions of software applications, with new document formats and operating systems, and with the interactive way electronic information is presented today.

Furthermore, efforts to provide access to these types of applications have required non-standard means that may vary between applications and between versions of applications -- and are sometimes error-prone. Features and information in rich text documents that are difficult for those with disabilities to tap include headings and captions in tables, fonts, text colors, text selected for cutting and pasting, hyperlinks, and caret location.

Many browser-based Rich Internet Applications or Web 2.0 technologies, such as AJAX (which enable bursts of information, commentary, and live updates on a Web page), don't have standardized programming interfaces to communicate behind the scenes with assistive technologies. They cannot easily say what is occurring on-screen and how interactions on a static portion of a Web page may affect a "live" region on another.

By standardizing the interfaces, and with the stewardship of the Free Standards Group, assistive technology vendors now have a more consistent, less expensive way to easily extend their software for new technologies and computer operating systems. Likewise, mainstream software application vendors can more easily extend their programming interfaces to communicate with assistive technologies.

IAccessible2 complements a proprietary application program interface, called Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), and therefore lets companies continue to benefit from their Windows investments. IAccessible2 is based on open technology that IBM originally developed with Sun to make Java and Linux accessible to those with disabilities. Once implemented on Windows, it will be easier to adapt individual applications for accessibility on other operating systems, potentially creating business opportunities for multi-platform application developers.

This effort was accelerated by the need to produce accessible productivity software based on the OpenDocument Format (ODF) to meet the needs of municipalities such as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which has mandated the use of open standards such as ODF. The technology makes browsers such as Firefox, and formats such as ODF -- used in open source productivity suites like OpenOffice.org or commercial messaging environments such as IBM Workplace -- relate more automatically and more fully to assistive technologies such as JAWS, MAGic or Windows Eyes.

This work was performed by IBM engineers across two continents involving IBM Lotus engineers in Beijing and Boston, as well as accessibility experts in IBM's Emerging Technologies group and in IBM Research, many of whom have developed assistive technologies and performed work to make Java, Linux, Firefox, and Rich Internet Applications more accessible. The work was validated by Freedom Scientific and GW Micro, both of which worked closely with IBM developers. Both Freedom Scientific and GW Micro will support IAccessible2 in products designed for blind and low-vision users.

Between 750 million and 1 billion of the world's six billion people have a speech, vision, mobility, hearing or cognitive disability, according to the World Health Organization.

Endorsements from the IBM press release are appended below the FSG press release

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Free Standards Group to Standardize New Accessibility Interfaces

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

Standard Will Help Developers Support Assistive Technology for the Disabled

on Multiple Platforms 

The Free Standards Group (FSG), the standardization and certification authority for Linux, today announced that it will be developing and maintaining software interfaces donated by IBM as an open standard, available for all to use. The standardized interfaces, IAccessible2, make it far easier for application developers to provide accessible applications to computer users with disabilities, regardless of their OS platform.   IAccessible2 will become a crucial part of the FSG Accessibility Workgroup and is available immediately. 

IAccessible2 makes it easier for assistive technologies to provide those with disabilities access to advanced features in software programs — such as editing functions, tables, hyperlinks, charts and menus — found in rich Browser applications based on AJAX, DHTML, and WAI-ARIA, and desktop applications based on the OpenDocument Format (ODF). The interfaces will be housed within the FSG’s Accessibility Workgroup, which has been standardizing interfaces to make applications on the Linux platform accessible to those with disabilities since 2004. This effort was accelerated by the need to produce accessible productivity software based on ODF to meet the needs of municipalities such as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which has mandated the use of open standards such as ODF. 

The new interfaces work on Microsoft Windows and are designed to dramatically reduce the effort to support assistive technnologies, such as screen readers on other platforms, such as Linux, making multi-platform enablement much easier. Assistive technologies (ATs) enable individuals who are blind or visually impaired to read online text, and provide the means for individuals who do not have the use of their arms and hands to write and correspond. ATs also enable individuals who cannot speak or hear to participate on today’s teleconferences. For Windows developers, IAccessible2 may be added to their existing Microsoft Active Accessibility-enabled applications in order to support richer functionality. Another advantage of a standardized interface is that supporting AT vendors will be able to access new applications with dramatically less effort. 

“The Free Standards Group and the Accessibility Workgroup is the perfect place to standardize and develop this new technology,” said Richard Schwerdtfeger, Accessibility Architect and Strategist at IBM. “Their mission of improving access and choice for all computer users and developers fits perfectly with this initiative. We chose the FSG to develop and maintain this technology as an open standard because they have the greatest amount of experience maintaining open source standards, especially for those with disabilities, and have proven they can rally the industry to their projects. With the combination of Linux and Windows accessibility API open standards we see the FSG as an established hub for accessibility interoperability standards which are harmonious across the platforms. IBM is a proud member of the FSG, and we look forward to working with them on enhancing access for all computer users.” 

“We are extremely proud IBM has chosen the Free Standards Group, out of the many standards setting organizations available, to house and develop these donated software interfaces,” said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Free Standards Group. “This donation is extremely important to application developers and the disabled community. Our mission is to provide the greatest amount of access to all computer users: open standards like the ODF and LSB enable unfettered access to technology and data. IAccessible2 will ensure those who are disabled get access to the widest number of applications.” 

Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, IBM, Mozilla Foundation, Oracle, SAP and Sun Microsystems are among those to first to back the technology, and will be involved in developing it as an industry standard, or use it in products with which they are associated. The technology makes browsers such as Firefox, and formats such as ODF — used in open source productivity suites like OpenOffice.org and commercial messaging environments such as IBM Workplace — relate more automatically and more fully to assistive technologies such as JAWS, MAGic and Windows Eyes.  

More information on the FSG Accessibility Workgroup and the new interfaces can be found at http://freestandards.org/en/Accessibility. 

About the Free Standards Group 

The Free Standards Group is a non-profit member-supported organization dedicated to strengthening and promoting Linux as a platform for application development. Its Linux Standard Base (LSB) standardization and certification programs deliver interoperability between applications and the Linux operating system, offering a cost-effective way for application vendors to target multiple Linux distributions. For end-users, the LSB and its mark of interoperability preserves choice by allowing them to select the applications and distributions they want while avoiding vendor lock-in. Key Free Standards Group projects currently focus on application portability, printing, Linux testing, internationalization, and accessibility. Supported by leaders in the IT industry as well as the open Source development community, the work of the Free Standards Group ensures Linux does not fragment. More information can be found at www.freestandards.org.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Supporting quotes from IBM press release

American Association of People with Disabilities

"The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) recognizes IBM for its development of IAccessible2, a new collection of Application Program Interfaces (APIs) that were designed to provide a richer user experience for technology users with a broad range of disabilities, and its donation to the Free Standards Group. We were also pleased to see IBM's involvement of assistive technology vendors in IAccessible2's design and implementation in Lotus' Productivity Tools that support ODF, and applaud IBM's collaboration with the Free Standards Group to allow for inclusive innovation on accessibility through an open standard. IBM continues to show its industry leadership to enrich the lives of all persons with disabilities and to aid developers in making it a reality."

-- Andrew J. Imparato, AAPD President and CEO, AAPD

American Foundation for the Blind

"The American Foundation for the Blind applauds IBM for its latest efforts to ensure equal access to technology for those with vision loss. IBM has made real commitments to ensure that new technologies will not exclude those who use screen readers and magnification. By taking a leadership role in creating both new technology and at the same time including accessibility, IBM meets the highest standards for responsible development practices. AFB appreciates our on-going relationship with IBM, which continues to expand possibilities for those with vision loss."

-- Paul Schroeder, Vice President, Programs and Policy Group, AFB

CAST

"The IAccessible2 software is very forward-looking and opens up a huge frontier for students with disabilities. It provides a critical tool for schools that are using the OpenDocument Format, Web applications and Web resources to ensure that resulting materials are accessible to the broadest spectrum of students. This is a significant contribution to those communities.

"With technologies like IAccessible2, we will build accessibility into open source and open standards-based educational tools and materials right from the start. For example, there is a challenge to provide browsers that can talk aloud. IAccessibility2 software may help developers enable open source browsers with embedded and intelligent text-to-speech technology. It will help create software that is truly useful for all students, especially those with disabilities."

-- Chuck Hitch*censored*, Chief Officer, Policy and Technology, Director, NIMAS Technical Assistance Center CAST, Inc.

Freedom Scientific

"Freedom Scientific's participation with the IBM team during the design of the API, and implementation phase with IBM's office suite, has gone a long way in demonstrating the benefits and possibilities of an open standard. All users of assistive technology will certainly benefit from the successful implementation of this solution by application developers. The benefits of the IAccessible2 work will greatly improve access, offering a far more robust interface than MSAA alone. We welcome the opportunity of expanding our support to applications in the future with both JAWS and MAGic at a much faster pace, with a greater emphasis on usability, in the variety of choices the ODF will offer going forward."

-- Eric Damery, Vice President, Product Management Software, Freedom Scientific, Inc.

Free Standards Group

"IBM's contribution of IAccessible2 will enable the Free Standards Group to extend the benefits of free and open technology to the overwhelming majority of computer users with disabilities, regardless of their OS platform. Users will have more accessible applications to choose from, developers will find it substantially easier to support multiple operating environments, and institutional IT departments will find it easier to meet legal mandates for accessibility. We are extremely proud to work with IBM on this important open standard."

-- Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Free Standards Group

GW Micro

"MSAA provides a great base for allowing applications to make themselves accessible. However, over the years it has become apparent that MSAA lacks important information needed to make certain elements accessible. IBM has taken the lead on extending MSAA, using the new IAccessible2 interface. IAccessible2 resolves the major holes left with MSAA by enhancing it, not replacing it. Switching from MSAA to other standards, such as UIA, is possible in the future, but is likely to be a very expensive endeavor. IAccessible2 allows you to keep existing MSAA support but then allows you to enhance in areas that MSAA falls short. GW Micro has been working with IBM to fully integrate IAccessible2 into its screen reader, Window-Eyes. Having Window-Eyes support IAccessible2 allows application developers to test using serious accessibility tools. IAccessible2 completes MSAA."

-- Doug Geoffray, Vice President of Development, GW Micro

IBM

"IAccessible2 is a key ingredient in the convergence of rich Web and desktop applications. It supports usable access for people with disabilities on Windows, while reducing developers' efforts to support accessibility on other operating systems. The Free Standards Group's acceptance to make it an open standard will speed up the process to make future industry innovations accessible."

-- Rich Schwerdtfeger, Distinguished Engineer, SWG Accessibility Architect/Strategist, Chair, IBM Accessibility Architecture Review Board

Mozilla Project

"IAccessible2 removes unnecessary accessibility API differences between Linux and Windows and allows one code base to support both platforms. The completeness of IAccessible2 will help eliminate the need for workarounds in assistive technologies and will enable developers to create rich, accessible desktop and Web applications based on cross-platform Mozilla-supported technologies like HTML, XUL, Javascript, and AJAX. Because of these strengths the Mozilla project will use IAccessible2 to enable top-notch accessibility in its technology base and in end user products such as the Mozilla Firefox web browser."

-- Frank Hecker, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation

National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science

"We are pleased that IAccessible2 will provide access to richly formatted documents, complex tables, and relationships between objects, which is a critical requirement for Web 2.0 applications. It is also good that other companies developing applications with complex document support across multiple platforms have shown significant interest in implementing IAccessible2. NFBCS looks forward to the time when IAccessible2 will be a key accessibility feature in applications that are fully accessible to the blind. The work that IBM has already completed to get IAccessible2 up and running deserves our support and commendation."

-- Curtis Chong, President, NFBCS

OpenDocument Format Alliance

"The additional accessibility capabilities provided by the new software interfaces will help advance ODF's acceptance by governments around the world."

-- Marino Marcich, Managing Director, ODF Alliance

Oracle

"Oracle applauds IBM's contribution of IAccessible2 accessibility technology to the Free Standards Group, significantly advancing accessibility for enterprise applications. This effort is consistent with Oracle's commitment to serving customer requirements with open standards and our work in open standards forums such as W3C to address IT solutions for those with disabilities. As a platinum FSG member, we look forward to working with industry partners and the accessibility community to evolve the IAccessible2 standard and improve the quality and usability of AJAX-style user interfaces."

-- Connie Myers, Accessibility Program Manager, Oracle

Royal National Institute of the Blind (UK)

"The Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) is proud to support IBM's contribution of IAccessible2 to the Free Standards Group (FSG). IAccessible2 provides for the general expansion of Windows accessibility and multi-platform opportunities. As both developers and Assistive Technology Vendors (ATVs) contributed to its design, we feel it will make life easier for both constituencies. By design, IAccessible2 allows developers and ATVs to expand on today's Windows accessibility investment and, through the FSG, allows both parties to provide for accessibility earlier for future industry innovations.

"Building on the great work by Microsoft, the idea of multi-platform accessibility bringing the same benefits to all platforms as those derived by users of Microsoft products, are ever closer. We endorse the work of the alliance and hope that closer collaboration and further developments continue."

-- Steve Tyler, Senior Strategic Manager for Digital Technology, RNIB

SAP

"SAP appreciates IBM's work on IAccessible2, as this API will reduce the complexity for assistive technology vendors, application software vendors and, finally, end users alike. The interface will eventually allow every software vendor to develop better and more robust accessible applications in the future, especially rich browser applications. In addition, we expect increased compatibility of application software and assistive technologies at reduced costs -- for the benefit of all the users who rely on assistive technologies."

-- Gisbert Loff, Director SAP User Experience

Sun

"Sun applauds IBM's contribution of a rich, extensible accessibility framework for Microsoft Windows to the Free Standards Group, where it will join to follow the lead of the UNIX accessibility standardization process already underway. These additions, rooted in work with Sun to make Java and GNU/Linux accessible to those with disabilities, will make it significantly easier to adapt individual applications for accessibility across operating systems."

-- Juan Carlos Soto, Vice President, Technology and Partner Marketing, Sun Microsystems

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