KDE developers focus on accessibility

KDE'S developers have unveiled plans to increase accessibility for people with disabilities in the next release of their Linux desktop software
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor

Developers behind the next version of KDE, an open-source Linux desktop environment, are trying to make their software more accessible to people with disabilities, a conference has heard. Accessibility is a major theme at the KDE Community World Summit, currently taking place in Ludwigsburg, Germany. On 22 and 23 August the summit held a Unix Accessibility Forum, bringing together developers and people with disabilities.

During the forum, KDE developer Harald Fernengel presented a demonstration of the KDE developer tool, Qt, showing how it could be used with GNOME's GOK, an on-screen keyboard for people who have problems using ordinary keyboards. He also demonstrated KDE working with the text-to-speech screen reader Gnopernicus.

The next version of KDE, which will either be called 3.4 or 4, will be compatible with accessibility software which at present only runs on another open-source Linux desktop, GNOME.

KDE's developers are also keen to ensure that all applications on the next release fully support the operating system's accessibility features, and pledged to improve utilities that automate use of a mouse, magnify parts of the screen, and KMouth, which converts text to speech.

KDE developer Olaf Schmidt said on Tuesday that changes in Qt will ensure that all KDE interfaces provide the right information to these assistance technologies. He also pointed out that GNOME's GOKon-screen keyboard nicely complements the functionality of KMouth

"KMouth and GOK make a good match," said Schmidt. "If you lose your voice you may also have lost movement for the same reason -- you can then use your computer to communicate with the outside world."

KDE's accessibility forum was also attended by representatives from GNOME, Sun, IBM, Novell, Trolltech and the Free Standards Group. Janina Sajka, the chair of the Accessibility Workgroup of the Free Standards Group, said she was delighted that so many organisations had come together to attend the summit, and was pleased that GOK could now be used by KDE users.

Sajka pointed out that users who care about accessibility are fundamentally agnostic about operating systems.

"The people who use these technologies don't care where the applications come from -- they just want them to work," said Sajka.

Sajka warned that the high cost of proprietary versions of accessibility software versions was often prohibitive, particularly as many people with disabilities are unemployed. She claimed that unemployment among people with disabilities in the US was around 70 percent.

She also claimed that open-source alternatives were easier to customise than many proprietary options, giving disabled people more opportunity to tailor the software to their needs.

"The open-source environment is significantly more accessible as nothing is hidden -- all the configurations and data are available and can be modified," she said.

IBM is one of the main commercial providers of accessibility software, and KDE developers at the event reported that ViaVoice, an IBM application that converts speech to text and vice versa, would shortly be available for Linux applications.

Vanessa Donnelly, a usability and accessibility consultant for IBM, said IBM has several initiatives designed to make its accessibility software more affordable. The hardware giant offers its Web Adaptation Techology, which allows users to adapt pages to their own needs, free of charge to disabled people and charities. In another initiative IBM offered Home Page Reader, a screen reader product for the visually impaired, for free on certain government Web sites. IBM was unable to provide an example Web site.

Donnelly also pointed IBM's long-term commitment to making technology accessible.

"IBM has been doing accessibility research for over 50 years. For example, we were the first to make a talking browser," she said.

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