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

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).
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

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).

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