At the annual gathering of international open-standards software group the OpenDoc Society in Paris late last year, Dutch government IT professionals presented what they see as a long-standing software flaw in Microsoft Word and Google Docs, which they argue blocks visually-impaired users from accessing documents written in those apps.
The presenters argued that when authors save Microsoft Word and Google Docs files in open text format OpenDocument Text, denoted by the file extension .odt, the document's entire hierarchy can disappear.
As a consequence, says the OpenDoc Society, a visually-impaired user cannot use dedicated reading aids, including Braille displays and Braille printers, because the document's hyperlinked table of contents and body headings disappear.
An adequately functioning document hierarchy in documents for a disabled audience is required by the European EN 301 549 standard, which came into legal force on a European level in 2016.
Some administrations, including the Dutch government, are required by law to provide equal access to all their official public documents to disabled and non-disabled people alike.
In addition, many national governments, including the Dutch, Belgian, and Norwegian governments, use the OpenDocument Format to ensure that their official documents remain accessible in digital repositories despite inevitable software changes from private software providers.
The OpenDocument Format has been a mandatory standard in the Dutch government since 2008. Meanwhile, the Dutch government has a strict open-standards policy that prohibits the publication of government documents in proprietary or legacy formats, including the .doc format.
The apparent software flaw also hinders the ability of non-disabled people to jump to different chapters of a .odf document.
"The lack of office suites that correctly handle ODF is holding back ODF adoption in the public sector," says Han Zuidweg, senior adviser at Dutch standards forum Forum Standaardisatie and one of the Dutch government IT workers who helped to uncover the software flaw.
Despite the OpenDoc Society's arguments, Microsoft said last month it was unable to reproduce the bug.
"We've been unable to reproduce the behavior as described. In our testing, the table of contents and headings worked with keyboard, mouse, and screen readers when converting a .doc or .docx file to a .odt file using Microsoft Word desktop," a Microsoft spokesperson said.
Microsoft urges commercial users with questions about accessibility to consult the Microsoft Disability Answer Desk and directs business users to the the enterprise Disability Answer Desk. In addition, Microsoft asks that users with ideas about how to make Word more usable for people with disabilities contribute at Word User Voice.
Google did not respond to a request for comment from ZDNet.
OpenDocument Text is comparable to the .doc file type in the Microsoft Office suite and exists among other OpenDocument file types. For example, the OpenDocument file extension .odp correlates with Microsoft PowerPoint's .ppt, and the OpenDocument .ods with Microsoft Excel's .xls.
Microsoft Word and Google Docs users can store their documents in the OpenDocument Text format by selecting the .odt extension during the saving process.
Like the OpenDocument Format, Microsoft's own open formats, including .docx and .pptx, are designed to work flexibly with many document readers and editors. However, OpenDocument supporters criticize their use.
"The widespread use of OOXML (.docx, .xlsx, .pptx) formats for editable documents is not a problem in itself, but we do have concerns about sustainable accessibility: will future generations be able to use legacy documents in formats other than ODF, PDF/A and HTML? And will those documents fulfill the universal accessibility requirements?" wrote Zuidweg in an email to ZDNet.
The OpenDoc Society had invited both Microsoft and Google to its November gathering, but neither company attended.
Update, March 2: After this story's publication, Microsoft informed ZDNet that it has identified the bug in Microsoft Word and is working to correct it.
According to Microsoft: "Microsoft is deeply committed to accessibility and we're committed to helping our products meet the needs of all our customers. After further investigation, Microsoft was able to identify the bug and is working to address."
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