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Office Formats, Accessibility and Politics: Caveat Legislator

OpenDocument and OOXML

Massachusetts legislators on Beacon Hill today will see a demonstration of accessibility features for Office 7, but they won't see the complete picture.

Today, interested Massachusetts legislators are being offered a pre-release demonstration of the accessibility features of Microsoft's Office 2007. What I understand they will see will be a subset of Windows features used in conjunction with a subset of third party accessibility tools. But how much of the whole picture will they see?

As anyone who has followed the ODF saga for any amount of time knows, certain issues of substance hang in the balance as the outcome of this battle is determined in the halls of government. One of those issues is accessibility — the question of whether or not those with disabilities can utilize information technology, and whether they can have access to jobs that require the use of such technology.

Microsoft has not historically been an innovator in ensuring accessibility, although it has made accommodations in response to customer requirements, including those imposed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In fact, few of the tools used by the community of the disabled have been developed by Microsoft. Instead, they have been developed by small ISVs, and are sold (at significant cost) as add-ons to Windows-based systems. And, rather than making it easy for these ISVs to solve customer accessibility problems for Microsoft customers, Microsoft has been criticized for making their task more difficult.

For example, ZDNet's David Berlind, quoted at length last November from a letter he received from Curtis Chong, President of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science. That letter expressed reservations over the current accessibility capacity of software supporting ODF, but also stated that the Federation "would give its enthusiastic support to the OpenDocument format once we are satisfied that our concerns with respect to nonvisual access have been addressed."

The letter also acknowledges that, while the blind are able to use Microsoft products, the credit for that result does not necessarily go to Microsoft. Here is one of the excerpts from Chong's letter taken from David's long and informative article:

….such access as we have relies heavily upon the unsung and heroic efforts of a handful of small companies whose software must often steal and scrape such information as they can from an operating system and application programs that are designed only incidentally to provide the information they need. The access we currently have to applications running in the Windows environment is the culmination of literally decades of software development, user experience, and software evolution ….Moreover, whenever Microsoft decides to come out with a new version of Office or Windows, screen access technology developers and the blind community must race to keep up. If they do not, such access as we have enjoyed could evaporate literally overnight. Yet, despite these imperfections, the access that we do enjoy in Windows is unmatched on any other platform in use today.

In short, those with disabilities are understandably concerned about losing what they have worked so hard to gain. Which does not, of course, equate to satisfaction with the current dynamics of the situation, nor does it necessarily auger well for the future when Microsoft releases Office 2007. That application suite will contain what Alan Yates, Microsoft's general manager, business strategy, for the Information Worker Group, described earlier this week in an interview with ITWire's Stan Beer as a "really break-through set of innovations."

Will those new features present training issues? The same article includes the following:

According to Yates, criticism from some quarters that Office 2007 is going to introduce a steep learning curve for existing Office users is not going to present a major problem for Microsoft, although he admits the learning curve exists…. “One of the things we have done, for example, is that we have really expanded the tool tips where, if you hover over something, you’ll get directions to how that feature is used. As well, if you hover over something, the entire text will change right in front of you so you’ll see what happens immediately. In fact, we have done some really smart things to mitigate the impact of transitioning to a new user interface. The result is that, yes, there is a short learning curve but, at the end of the day, you are so much more efficient compared to the old user interface that it is well worth it to undergo the switch.”

One would assume that the members of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science will be less inclined to feel that such visual aides are "really smart things" to mitigate the pain of transition, and that those heroic programmers working for accessibility ISVs will be similarly dismayed.

The question of accessibility is both important as well as emotional. Those with disabilities have far fewer employment opportunities than those without handicaps, and government has been more receptive to hiring those with accessibility issues than private industry. As a result, any development that could limit the continuing availability of government employment to those with disabilities is one that would understandably inspire concern in the community of the disabled.

Today, the software that supports ODF does not provide as many accommodations to those with disabilities as does the Windows environment — but this gap is narrowing with the progress of concerted work within OASIS, which developed and maintains the ODF standard. And, since there are already open source implementations of ODF (such as OpenOffice), there is far greater freedom for ISVs to create additional tools to accommodate the needs of those with disabilities.

Theoretically, all of this should be an open book to the public, with full transparency and accurate information available to all. But, of course, as vast amounts of money are also at risk and dependent upon the same outcome, there are also certain human behaviors that are evoked in a political and economic situation of this type. Those types of behavior involve trying to influence the actions of our elected representatives by "educating" them about the issues upon which they ultimately must vote on our behalf.

With all of this prelude, I've included below the text of an invitation that I understand was sent two days ago to several Massachusetts government email lists. As a counterpoint, I've also included excerpts from a lengthy article that appeared earlier this year at LinuxPlanet.com. I urge you to read that article in full, and you can find it here.

First item:

*From:* Hynes, Frank - Rep. (HOU) *
Sent:* Monday, March 06, 2006 12:32 PM*
To:* HOU-DL - HOUSE REPS; HOU-DL - HOUSE AIDES; HOU-DL - HOUSE STAFF*
Subject:*

Dear Colleague,

The Disability Policy Consortium and the Bay State Council of the Blind are sponsoring an Accessibility Showcase on Wednesday, March 8 from 12:30 - 2 in room B1. The event will be a pre-release demonstration of Microsoft’s Office 2007.

I would like to invite you and your staff to attend this event to learn about the importance of accessible technology for people with disabilities. As you know, there has been discussion on this topic since the Executive Office of Administration and Finance announced that it wanted to move the state executive document storage to OpenDocument format. OpenSource technology and the applications that currently meet the standard for OpenDocuments do not meet many user’s needs for accessibility.

This is an opportunity for all of us to learn what the current standards and see how Microsoft has accommodated them within the framework of its new release.

Please join the DPC and the Bay State Council on Wednesday. A light lunch will be provided and they are asking us to RSVP at 617 499-6957.

Sincerely,

Frank M. Hynes
State Representativex

Second item (excerpts):

 

 

Visually Impaired User Weighs In on Assistive Technology Debate
Why a Windows-Only Argument Is A Bad Idea

Scott Seder
Thursday, January 5, 2006 11:09:09 AM

A situation has developed that has caught my eye in recent months and has made me realize that I could no longer keep silent concerning several things troubling me. I am visually impaired and a PC user, and I cannot see well enough to work with a PC without using JAWS for Windows and MAGIC for Windows Assistive Technology Software….

The sighted community, in its attempt to be magnanimous to the non-sighted and fill our needs, has completely ignored the issue at hand. Does the system that has been selected meet the needs of the community toward which it is directed? Or is there something else that could be designed that would work more effectively and at a lower price for the consumer or taxpayer? According to the debate and its conclusion we, as visually impaired people, may never know what "could be better done to meet our needs."

To illustrate my concerns, I was perplexed several months ago by problems I was having with my PC. First, it would crash multiple times in everyday use. I frequently found it necessary to restart Magic or JAWS--or both--or reboot my Windows XP PC because of an instability in my system. Even following a fresh re-installation of all software, this application suite refuses to provide an acceptable level of system stability. The crashes are devastating because they cause me to lose vital files I had created and have to start work over again after having nearly completed it….

Secondly, my PC often begins to run slowly and the Assistive Technology (AT) programs will not function correctly. (i.e., settings I had enabled would fail to function or would change unexpectedly)….

Finally, my system gets bogged down apparently with too much running in the background--no matter what function I disable. I have a 2.4-gHz P4 processor and 512 Mb of RAM, so things should run efficiently. I have Windows XP Home Edition because that is what my state government's Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired had provided for my employment needs. (I would have preferred XP Professional since it was purported to run more efficiently.)

The above narrative illustrates the point that for people who depend upon this type of AT to communicate at work such as me, the cost is often too high. The industry in my opinion is utterly too dependent upon state funding rather than producing competitively priced marketable software. …

The overall cost the state incurred giving me my entire system was close to $15,000! This includes approximately $5,000 for my entire PC system of software and hardware, a PDA costing close to $6,000 and a closed-circuit reading system that cost close to $4,000…..

"But," you might ask, "Can't you just use the integrated software that comes with Windows XP or some other operating systems?" The answer is, in the case of Microsoft, a most emphatic "NO!" The integrated platform software for Windows XP is problematic at best. None of the technologies work in all applications (text-to-speech ceases to work altogether in some cases without warning). Screen enhancement works only in some cases and not for the whole screen and not for all menus. The above text includes only a fraction of the woes described in the original article. Can you imagine living in such a world of frustration? Can you imagine how much worse it would be if you could not see screen prompts, help screens, user documentation and error messages?

So when the legislators walk into the room today to see their demonstration, watching systems configured and operated by trained, sighted professionals, I would suggest that they keep Steve Seder's letter in mind, and ask themselves whether in the long term everyone — those with disabilities, as well as taxpayers with all of their senses intact — would not be better off in a competitive environment, using multiple products based on open standards, and with open source platforms readily available to ISVs that make a living meeting the needs of those with disabilities.

In short, Caveat Legislator.

[To browse all prior blog entries on this story, click here]

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