There is an 13 letter word that begins with “a” and ends with “y”, can you guess what it is? Yup, *a11y* is what I’m on about, also known asAccessibility.
I think the subject of a11y is possibly a very misunderstood one, I for one incorrectly associated it with disabled use of a computer. I have been corrected (on more than one occasion) to the fact that Accessibility actually refers to the ability for anybody to be able to use a computer (or any other device) regardless of any impairment they might have. So that means both people with and without disabilities are a11y users. In addition to that, a11y can also help developers to automate testing – quite often UI testing.
An extreme case of a11y usage could be a blind person who can’t see a GUI the way someone with 20⁄20 vision can, or someone with spectacles. They may have to use a tool called a screen reader (Orca is common on Linux) that describes what’s on the screen by speaking through the speakers. So in order to get something like Orca to work, application UIs need to be understandable by Orca in a programmatic way and that pays off with the automated testing.
So what’s the issue? Well from what I can see, and what I have heard, is that openSUSE sucks the goat’s back-end when it come’s to a11y. In all honesty I don’t have any real evidence to back this claim, but one thing I do know is that we don’t really do much as a community about it. Before anyone flips this to a “why isn’t Novell paying for people to work on it full time” argument, shush! This is a misconception that I think people have about corporate sponsors to a project; as it happens Novell does employ some folks to work on a11y indirectly thanks to the working partnership with Microsoft, check out the great work by the Mono a11y team. If we as a community want to get some dedicated resources assigned to anything, we need to make the case first, we have to show that as a community we feel strongly about the subject and show to whomever is writing the cheques that we are doing the job but could do with a helping hand.
As an example, Red Hat and Canonical do not have dedicated a11y developers but they do have developers who keep a11y foremost in their minds as they develop and innovate projects for the masses. We don’t really have that as such. This is where we can reach out to upstream and ask for some help and guidance. Both GNOME and KDE have a11y teams, although it appears that the former is more active.
Accessibility is not an easy topic to tackle. If one doesn’t understand the tools, how does one ensure the pieces you put together are working? So how about we start learning, and do it well? This is a subject that affects allusers and developers, and is something that all DEs can jump on and help out. Heck we may even learn a thing or two about how our colleagues/friends/enemies work ;-) It affects us all, and as such we all need to help.
The European Eunion feels fairly strongly about Accessibility and as such there are numerous laws in place to try and ensure that users that require it are given an even chance. They have also set up AEGIS to promote a11y usage. In the United states the National Science Foundation is helping to fund HFOSS to help the a11y cause. So as you can see there’s a fairly big push from it from central government. If we don’t follow their example and neglect to have a11y in our focused sights I fear it could lead to a slippery downward slope for openSUSE. If that sounds melodramatic then maybe it is, but it is something that I honestly do feel could affect us badly.
A quick and dirty way to get into a11y is to just enable accessibility in your session. You shouldn’t notice any difference, if you do then that’s a bug! File the bug, and make sure you mention that you have a11y enabled.
So as a community do you think this is something we could get behind? I would love to see openSUSE 12.0 released as the most accessible distribution; Ubuntu currently makes the statement that they are the most accessible desktop system available and this is a statement I would love to show as false! Not through animosity but through sheer prowess of the Geeko! To do that we (yes that means you at the back, listening to your boom boom music and chatting to your friends on FaceSpace) have to roll our sleeves up and get educated and start educating!
I’m not looking for people to nod in agreement with my call for help, that is easy to do. What I’m looking for is a concerted effort by all in the community to help make us Number 1! There are lots of different ways to do this, but to do so we need to unite as one and work cohesively. So please, help me to help everyone, and make openSUSE that much better!