ODF subpar for the disabled? Not so fast says Google researcher.

ODF subpar for the disabled? Not so fast says Google researcher.

Summary: Perhaps this blog entry should have been entitled "What the Senator didn't hear during Massachusetts' Halloween Hearing on the OpenDocument Format."  But that would have been too long (for a headline).

TOPICS: Microsoft

Perhaps this blog entry should have been entitled "What the Senator didn't hear during Massachusetts' Halloween Hearing on the OpenDocument Format."  But that would have been too long (for a headline).  In that hearing, testimony was heard from several representatives of the community of People With Disabilities (PWDs).  Depending on which of the "witnesses" spoke, the testimony was either strictly unfavorable towards Massachusetts' decision to standardize on the OpenDocument Format (for the storing, retrieval, editing, and archiving of the state's public documents) or was favorable to solutions based on Microsoft Office.  Never did the testimony flush out the potential benefits of moving to something as open as OpenDocument (ODF). 

Following the hearing, I reported on my exchange of e-mails with Curtis Chong, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, who in his correspondences with me changed his mind and agreed that ODF was probably technically more suited (than Microsoft's file formats) to innovations that could make computers and documents more accessible to PWDs. His real dispute with the Massachusetts decision, as it turns out, was the timetable for the state's rollout.  While the timetable calls for an ODF rollout beginning on January 1, 2007, it won't be known until that time the extent to which ODF-compliant accessible-to-PWD solutions (solutions that are at least as accessible as those based on Microsoft Office) will be widely available. What Chong and others who respresent PWDs are concerned about is that someone with a disability could show up for work on January 1, 2007 (or the first work day after the New Year) and not be able to do their jobs because the tools that they need to work with ODF-compliant documents simply don't exist.  

But, in addition to a lot of what's already been said about how a file format like ODF with minimal legal encumbrances can pave the way for innovation in accessibility better than formats with encumbrances, now comes even more evidence that ODF is better for PWDs because of the way it leverages certain accessibility technologies that were designed for the Web.  Shortly after the dust settled from the Halloween Hearing, T.V. Raman who now works at Google Research contacted me via e-mail to point out that instead of coming up with its own implementation of forms the way other file formats have, the designers of the OpenDocument Format chose to use XForms; the same technology that is the standard forms technology for the Web. 

By itself, this seems like no big deal.  But, as it turns out, the ability to fill out electronic forms is critical for PWDs.  As such, XForms -- the newest forms technology for the Web -- was designed with accessibility in mind. Raman, who is blind, should know: as an employee at IBM for most of the last five years, he was one of the authors of the World Wide Web Consortium's XForms standard.  According to Raman, by virtue of its reliance on XForms, ODF has actually inherited some of the Web's key accessibility features.  I asked Raman for more details and here's how he replied:

XForms ---  the W3C's specification for next-generation online forms--- became a W3C Recommendation October 2003. It was designed for use within different document formats including XHTML; ODF adopted it as its online forms module circa 2004. 

Why This Is A Good Thing:
The XForms design leverages many years of experience with both HTML Forms, as well as other commercial electronic forms technologies. Part of this experience included many of the accessibility short-comings in HTML Forms; in designing a new generation of electronic forms, we built-in accessibility solutions to the various problems encountered with HTML Forms.  XForms, like other W3C Recommendations, is a royalty free specification, and is not encumbered in any way with respect to vendors including or re-using it within other specifications.  For an evaluation of XForms with respect to other commercial electronic forms solutions, see this link which focused on XForms, Microsoft InfoPath (part of Office 11) and Adobe PDF Forms as the three main contendors for defining electronic forms. 

It also occurs to me that there could be another key benefit to having both documents and the Web share accessibility technologies: that of consistency for people with PWDs.  Obviously, this depends on who is developing the software or the Web pages but I can see where it would be clearly better for PWDs if the user interface to a form was the same regardless of whether the form was document-based (as in an ODF-compliant or Microsoft XML-compliant document) or Web-based.  Accessibility is already difficult enough.  Requiring PWDs to learning more than one way to interface to a form is just a bad idea.  To the extent that Massachusetts officials are still investigating the accessibility angle as their deliberations over the ODF decision continues (especially given that Microsoft has further eased the legal encumbrances associated with its formats), this commonality between Web accessibility technology and ODF-compliant document accessibility seems relevant.

Going back to the point on how encumbrances can impact innovation, there is one other noteworthy point regarding the covenant not to sue that's been issued by Microsoft.  The covenant applies to 100 percent conformant applications. In other words, Microsoft has promised not to sue so long as the application is completely conformant.  Setting aside some questions about how Microsoft can impose a conformance proviso on a supposedly multi-party stewarded standard (Microsoft said it would be turning its formats over to ECMA for stewardship), the conformance caveat also raises some question about innovations as they relate to accessibility. 

In as much as Microsoft has said when it won't sue, it hasn't said when it might.  So, it's not clear how much latitude an independent developer might have to tinker with Microsoft's formats in the name of accessibility before Microsoft might take offense.  Although I'm not a lawyer, the conformance proviso may raise questions about which of the formats in play does more to encourage the sort of innovation that PWDs deserve.  Ultimately, going back to Curtis Chong's letter and the way he cites the heroic efforts of a few third parties that have used both documented and undocumented interfaces to make Microsoft Office accessible to PWDs (and the way most third party accessibility software breaks when Microsoft upgrades its applications or operating systems), one of the challenges for the accessibility technology community has been the extent to which Microsoft ultimately controls how accessible its technologies are.  For PWDs, the presence of the conformance proviso in Microsoft terms  certainly raises the question of whether the degree to which Office-based documents will be accessible to PWDs is still ultimately up to Microsoft (and not to those with a real itch to scratch: often the source of the best innovations).

Topic: Microsoft

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  • Achieving Accessibility with existing ODF apps

    One issue that's never been mentioned in any of the discussions I've seen is that getting StarOffice/OpenOffice.org to a more accessible state is NOT a matter of replicating the decades of scripting and custom development done for JAWS etc. on Windows.

    StarOffice/OpenOffice expose all of their UI information to assistive technology (AT) through an API, using the Java Access Bridge on Windows. Peter Korn gives a detailed explanation of the benefits of this approach - "access by contract" - at http://www.sun.com/access/articles/presentations/IDEAS2004/IDEAS_3Nov04.sxi

    Yes, it's a StarOffice Impress file. For those of you who don't want to download OpenOffice 2, I reproduce below 3 key benefits for assistive technology vendors and users, that this new approach to implementing accessibility brings:

    1) Platform has a formal responsibility for access
    - Define a comprehensive, extensible Accessibility API
    - Implement that API in all UI toolkits

    2) Applications have a clear interface to support
    - No more guessing, finger pointing
    - No more ?works with JAWS? as ?good enough?

    3) AT no longer responsible for everything
    - No more patching, reverse engineering
    - No need to update every time the OS or apps change

    (From slide 10)

    So, a key issue is how to get AT vendors to support the Java Accessibility API and Access Bridge, in addition to their current approach. This would immediately and dramatically improve support in all apps based on the OpenOffice.org codebase.

    So far it's been difficult to get full support - in this area, as with so many others, vendors won't spend money on developing for StarOffice/OpenOffice.org until they feel that there is a big enough customer demand to give them a return on investment.

    This is why it's so important for Sun, IBM, and the open source community and vendors to lead investment in this area. They've done some great things in Gnome on Linux - see Peter Korn's blog at
    but they have to target Windows too - that's where the vast majority of users of AT are.

    I know all this firsthand because we've implemented StarOffice across my organisation and investigated the AT issues in detail, with the help of various colleagues with disabilities. They all get to retain MS Office for now, and we're doing all we can to help them interoperate with StarOffice users.

    It's also important to realise that even if ODF compliant office suites get to provide an equal or better AT experience to MS Office, most people with disabilities will still feel very anxious about trying out new software. The guys I've worked with made this very clear - they have been so badly served in the past, and been through several experiences of upgrades that broke their accessibility, so they know what happens when they switch.
    • Kudos to DoctorB

      Excellent post. Thanks for taking the time to document the situation.
  • what's the price of oil tomorrow, ask Google

    Like someone very well known said a few days back "Other than cure cancer, Google will find the solution to everything"

    Someone from Google says and the rest like zombies shake their heads in agreement.

    Seems like a statement from Google "GM makes better cars than Toyota" will solve all of GM's problems.
  • Moot Point

    [i]Setting aside some questions about how Microsoft can impose a conformance proviso on a supposedly multi-party stewarded standard[/i]

    They don't. They promise not to sue anyone implementing [u]their[/u] specification. That's part of how they can force ECMA to rubber-stamp it: any changes ECMA makes will "void the warranty."
    Yagotta B. Kidding