The Standards Blog

Openness, ODF and Accessibility

OpenDocument and OOXML

On July 27, the OASIS announced that the first draft update of ODF (version 1.1) has been posted for public comment.  This draft is more than usually significant, since it seeks to make it easier for those that implement ODF to make their applications more accessible to those with disabilities.

If you are interested in accessibility issues or have been following ODF, then you probably already know that  concerns over accessibility have factored strongly in the ODF story since last August, when the first public objections were made by the community of the disabled in the context of Massachusett's proposed adoption of ODF.  ODF, it became clear at that time, did not offer the same degree of accessibility to those with disabilities as did Microsoft Office, when used in conjunction with a number of third party developer tools.  This differential (not surprisingly) has been much commented on not only by those directly affected, by also by Microsoft and others who are not proponents of ODF.

Over the last year, however, there has been a great deal of effort expended, both within OASIS and elsewhere, on closing the gap between applications that support ODF and the composite Microsoft Office accessible desktop, further to a commitment by those involved to not only equal, but exceed that desktop in accessibility.  Those efforts included formation of an accessibility subcommittee within the OASIS ODF Technical Committee charged with addressing accessibility needs within ODF.

If this is an issue of concern to you, then Peter Korn's blog is a "must read."  Peter is an Accessibility Architect at Sun, and has spent a great deal of time on accessibility issues, both at work, within OASIS, and at his Blog.  Yesterday, he had this to say about the posting of ODF 1.1 for public review and comment.  Here's an excerpt:

This marks a significant milestone in the development of the Open Document Format standard - open and public review of an update to the open ODF file format, whose updates (primarily for accessibility) were themselves developed openly with the input from experts in accessibility technology including multiple individuals with a variety of disabilities. To my knowledge the only similarly open process for a file format - and specifically explicitly open to people with disabilities and experts in accessibility technology - is that of the World Wide Web and the Web Accessibility Initiative. Certainly no other office document file format has had this level of public openness, nor this level of participation by individuals with disabilities and experts in accessibility technology.

Peter's comments on the OASIS process are particularly interesting when read in the context of a commentary posted by IBM's Rob Weir at his blog the day before.  Rob is a member of each of the OASIS subcommittees working on ODF, and contrasted the open OASIS process, which allows anyone to comment on (or cheapshot, if they wish) ODF, while the Open XML specification continues to be processed with Ecma, which does not have open mailing lists or other mechanisms to permit the public to follow its development activities:

The public doesn't see merely the end-product [of the ODF Technical Committee], or quarterly drafts, they can see (if they are so inclined) every discussion, every disagreement and every decision made by the TC, in near real-time. Our meeting minutes for our TC calls are posted for public inspection. Our mailing list archives, where most of the real work occurs, is there for the public to view. The comments submitted by the public are also available for anyone to read. This information is all archived from when the TC first met back in 2002, all the way to the discussions we're having today on spreadsheet formula namespaces....

Ecma TC45, the committee producing Office Open XML (OOXML), does not operate in a transparent manner. They do not have a public mailing list archive. They have not published their meeting minutes. The comments they receive from the public are not open for the public to read. The public has no idea what exactly the TC is working on, what issues they think are critical, whether the TC is in unanimous agreement, whether there is spirited debated or whether Microsoft dominates and decides everything. The fact that they have not yet sent OOXML for an Ecma vote is proof that believe the specification is not yet ready for standardization. But we know no details of what exactly is lacking, what problems are being fixed and, more importantly, what defects are being allowed to remain.

This dichotomy, I think, is especially significant in the context of accessibility issues, since those with disabilities are regrettably not the most empowered group in society.  Knowing what is done, and why, and having a meaningful opportunity to comment while comments still matter, is essential in order to have an effective voice.  And, unlike Open XML, there are already open source implementations of ODF where that influence can continue through to actual coded products. 

Openness, whether in standards or in open source software, of course, not only ennables innovation, but also inspires more people to become involved in trying to solve the same problem in new and creative ways.  Such as this: the OpenDocument Fellowship made its own accessibility-related news this week, announcing the availability at its site of a free, accessible text-based OpenDocument Reader.

If you have an interest in commenting on accessibility aspects of ODF 1.1, or any other features, you can do so through September 25 of this year.  You can download the current draft, find out how to submit comments, and view the comments of others all through links found at this page.

And if you have a continuing interest in accessibility issues and in efforts to make ODF applications world class in access, let me suggest that you keep track of Steve's thoughts at his blog, investigate the other accessiblity pages under his "links" section in the right hand column, and also check out the Carroll Tech All About Access blog.  They're all great - and that's just a start.

For further blog entries on ODF, click here

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The only problem I have with this article is the following:
ODF, it became clear at that time, did not offer the same degree of accessibility to those with disabilities as did Microsoft Office, when used in conjunction with a number of third party developer tools.

ODF is a file format - it's not an office suite. This sentence gives the appearance of the same FUD that originated the accessibility issues.

You're right, I was using shorthand.  Here's a more comprehensive overview:

1.  Currently available ODF-compliant software is not as accessible as is the Office environment.

2.  The accessibility software in the Office environment that comprises the difference is mostly third party software that has been created by small ISVs will little cooperation from Microsoft.

3.  There are significant efforts ongoing within an OASIS ODF subcommittee intended to accelerate accessible use of ODF - which includes making changes to the ODF standard itself.

So my statement was partly accurate and partly inaccurate, but certainly not comprehensive.  Wouldn't call it FUD, though, as I doubt I inspired much fear.

-  Andy

That's the fun of writing for the masses; not everyone has been following the issues {g}.

My only concern was if someone read your article and this is the first time that they heard of the issue, they may get confused as to what the real issue is.