Massachusetts OpenDocument Plan Leads to Push for More Accessibility

Desktop apps using open-source document format aren't yet as good as those from Microsoft

Two words came to mind when John Winske, president of the Boston-based Disability Policy Consortium, learned just before Labor Day last year that Massachusetts was planning to adopt the Open Document Format for Office Applications as a standard for its executive-branch agencies.

"Screwed again," he thought.

Winske, who has muscular dystrophy, said he instantly remembered how Microsoft Corp. had to be "prodded and dragged, kicking and screaming" to make its software accessible during the transition from DOS to Windows.

None of the prominent desktop applications that can create and save documents in OpenDocument currently work well with screen readers, magnifiers and other assistive technologies -- at least at a level comparable to that of products from Microsoft, whose 40-person Accessibility Technology Group is now widely praised by disabilities advocates.

Now, though, an uproar generated by groups such as Winske's is reverberating not only in the halls of the Massachusetts State House but at the research arms of some major technology vendors.

IBM's software accessibility team, for instance, put other projects on the back burner in November to make Massachusetts-related work its top priority, said Richard Schwerdtfeger, a distinguished engineer and accessibility architect/strategist at the company. Among other things, that meant a resource boost for IBM's Beijing labs in order to accelerate API work designed to make it easier for assistive technology vendors to support the company's Workplace office suite, he said.

Another IBM distinguished engineer is chairing a newly created OpenDocument accessibility subcommittee at the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, which oversees the file format. In addition, IBM tapped three other employees to serve on the subcommittee, which also includes three members from Sun Microsystems Inc.

IBM also is accelerating development of a screen reader and a screen magnifier for Linux. And Sun is working on a combined open-source screen reader and magnifier called Orca. But those efforts are still in the early stages of development, officials said.

Getting support for OpenOffice, Workplace or Sun's StarOffice software built into screen readers and magnifiers won't be easy. According to assistive technology vendors, which are generally small companies, the economics of supporting applications that have limited market demand don't work in their favor.

Freedom Scientific Inc. supports Office, Notes and Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect Office with its market-leading Job Access With Speech screen reader, said Eric Damery, vice president of software product management at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based company.

Supporting applications in its screen reader -- typically referred to by its acronym, JAWS -- is "a big undertaking," Damery said. He added that the demand for OpenDocument-compatible office software "has not been that great."

"We have to support where our user base is, and like it or not, that's the Microsoft operating system, applications and browsers," said Ben Weiss, CEO at Algorithmic Implementations Squared Inc., a 21-employee company in Manchester, Vt., that makes magnification software called ZoomText. But Weiss said he has reached a financially attractive agreement with IBM and the Mozilla Foundation to make their products work with ZoomText and hopes to start development work this summer.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts CIO Louis Gutierrez last week issued a request for information about plug-ins or other converter options that would enable Office "to easily open, render and save to" OpenDocument files and let documents be translated between Microsoft's formats and OpenDocument. Gutierrez said one of the reasons the state is exploring Office plug-ins is because Microsoft's products are "ahead on accessibility right now."

The state is also taking other steps to soothe the concerns of disabilities advocates. For example, Massachusetts' IT division later this month plans to launch an accessibility lab that will be headed by a former employee of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind who is "nationally recognized in this area," according to Gutierrez.

But Winske said he won't breathe a sigh of relief until he hears the state's planned midyear update on its OpenDocument implementation schedule, which Gutierrez has indicated will take into account what needs to be done to resolve accessibility issues.

The Disability Policy Consortium is prepared to file a lawsuit if the state doesn't follow through on that promise, Winske said. It is also considering legal action over the use of forms that are inaccessible to the blind on the state's Virtual Gateway health and social services Web site.

Winske said he likes the concept of open-source technology and hopes that OpenDocument will one day be accessible. "I have no problem with it," he said. "The Mozilla Project and Firefox have proved that if people build a better mousetrap, people will use it. It's a matter of making that mousetrap accessible."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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