Thursday, November 03, 2005

An Open Letter to Massachusetts Residents with Disabilities

If you've been following the debate in Massachusetts concerning adoption of the Open Document Format (ODF), you might be aware that a number of people and organizations have expressed concern over the impact of this decision on people with disabilities. Basically, the (flawed) logic goes: 1. This decision forces me to switch to open source software. 2. Open Source software isn't accessible. 3. Open source software is business unfriendly, and therefore nobody will develop assistive technologies for it, and 4. We, people with disabilities, will be victims of the decision.

Let's set aside for the moment that 1) this decision does not force the use of open source software, 2) the MA Information Technology Division (ITD) decision does not mandate any particular software, 3) the ITD has already stated that the needs of disabled persons trumps the policy, 4) open source software that reads and writes ODF is already quite accessible and can even be used with the very same JAWS product that blind users currently run, and 5) is licensed under the GNU Lesser Public License, which does not exclude businesses from developing proprietary software on top of or along side of it. (Indeed StarOffice is a commercial product that shares the same code base as

There was a hearing on Monday by the MA Senate Post Audit Committee, at which representatives of the accessibility community spoke. As I listened, I was struck by the emotion in the presentations. The representatives pleaded with the committee to reverse the ITD's decision.

Let's stop for a moment and think about that. Where does such emotional energy originate? I am not disabled myself, but as a KDE developer who is interested in accessibility, I can well imagine the struggle you have had over the last few decades. You have repeatedly been victimized by technology "improvements". You have written to your government representatives. You have formed coalitions so your voice will be heard. You have sued. You have struggled to get funding to purchase expensive assistive technology hardware and software. You have pleaded with Microsoft and other commercial vendors to make their software more accessible. Only in the last few years, largely because of the US Disabilities Act (Section 508), have you achieved significant progress, and even that has come grudgingly and at great expense.

Now you are faced with change once again and your reaction can be summed up in one word. Fear. Each time in the past when technology has changed, you have once again been forced to start over; you have once again become victims. I'm quite sure each of you has dreaded each new release of Microsoft Office -- far more so than those without disabilities.

I have some bad news for you. You're going to have to do it again when Microsoft releases Office 12. Worse, you're probably going to have to upgrade your desktop computer hardware. I'm sorry, but that is the awful truth.

Fear is a very powerful emotion. More powerful than love or intellect. It comes from the primitive hindbrain. We in the free and open source software (F/OSS) community frequently talk about Microsoft's strategy of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD). How amazingly powerful FUD is!

I have a message for you, the people of Massachusetts with disabilities. You need not be afraid. The F/OSS community is waiting to welcome you. Come on in, the water's fine., StarOffice, GNOME, and KDE are already quite accessible and becoming more so every day.

There is a fundamental difference between your experiences of the past in the proprietary Microsoft world versus the F/OSS world. In the Microsoft world, nothing changes unless there is a profit to be made, and you know that, as a minority, you lack the financial leverage to move corporations. In the F/OSS world, change originates from individuals. Change happens when you, the user, express a need and get involved. You are not at the mercy of corporate programmers. You do not have to be a programmer to make a difference. We need testers, bug reporters, documentation writers, tutorial writers, artists, and advocates. We need your experience and guidance. We need and highly value your input. And if you are also a programmer, well that's good, but it isn't essential.

Did you know that and StarOffice run under Windows?

Did you know that costs only your time to download and that StarOffice is very low cost?

Did you know that and StarOffice work with JAWS?

Did you know that the GNOME desktop software has a free screen reader called Gnopernicus and that they are working on an even better screen reader called ORCA?*checkout*/orca/docs/doc-set/orca.html

Did you know that, StarOffice, GNOME, and KDE provide many capabilities to assist the partially sighted and light allergic?

Did you know that GNOME and KDE include tools for the motor impaired who might have trouble operating a mouse or a keyboard?

Did you know that and StarOffice can read your Microsoft Office files? Not perfectly, but pretty darn well, and the difficulties are not their fault -- its the fault of Microsoft who will not publish their document formats.

I don't promise these tools are perfect, but then neither are those you are currently using, are they? In the Microsoft proprietary world you are largely helpless to affect change. You must rely on Microsoft, other companies, or the government. In the F/OSS world, you are empowered and you are in control. Isn't that what you've struggled for all your life?

Gary Cramblitt (aka PhantomsDad)
KDE Text-to-Speech Maintainer