Is Mass. switch to open source closing a door on disabled?

Concerns over disabled access to software applications will delay Massachussetts' transition to Open Document Format.

Massachusetts is scheduled to make the transistion from Microsoft Office to ODF-based office applications on Jan. 1, 2007, but concerns that the switch will leave the disabled out in the cold are delaying the transition, the Boston Herald reported.

The concern from advocates has forced Romney's administration to back down from a hard-line implementation date. Officials now say they'll push back the January 1 date if all the accessibility hurdles are not cleared by then.

A Romney spokesman said Friday that disabled workers won't have to carry the costs for updated technology or training. "The disabled community will not be asked to bear additional costs," said Felix Browne, a Romney administration spokesman. "Over time, it's possible that costs for the disabled could decline due to open source and competition."

The disabled depend on technologies like Braille readers and dictation applications that so far are engineered to work with Microsoft Office. If Office is forbidden, how will the disabled work?

"Until we let out a loud yell no one paid attention to us," said John Winske, president of the Disability Policy Consortium in Massachusetts. "They were going to do it before we came along, and I think unless we keep raising the issue they're going to go ahead and keep doing it."

It's not completely clear how state IT will accomodate the disabled without Microsoft but obviously the market for versions of the software that isn't tuned to Office just got a bit bigger.

ODF supporters say it would be better to build accessibility applications right into the software to inspire stronger competition and drive down the costs of future upgrades.

Winske says he's a fan of that strategy but thinks it will take a long time to get to that point -- much longer than January. "Right now our interest lies in a Microsoft world," he said. "In the future, I don't know. ODF could create a better mousetrap.

"[But] it's a lot easier to promise and a lot harder to deliver," he added.

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