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Open-Source Software To Become More Accessible To The Disabled

The Free Standards Group Wednesday introduced its Accessibility Workgroup, which will establish standards that make it easier for open-source developers to support technologies for the disabled.

Accessibility and freedom have been touted as the foundation of the open-source community since its inception more than a decade ago. Now the American Foundation for the Blind and the Free Standards Group are looking to extend open-source software's assets to people with visual impairments and other disabilities.

The Free Standards Group Wednesday introduced its Accessibility Workgroup, which will establish standards that make it easier for open-source developers to support technologies that enable individuals who are blind or visually impaired to read online text, and provide the means for individuals who do not have the use of their arms and hands to write and correspond.

The Free Standards Group Accessibility Workgroup includes experts on accessibility issues from organizations such as the American Foundation for the Blind, Georgia Institute of Technology Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, and the Computer Braille Facility of University of Western Ontario. The Accessibility Workgroup also includes developers of graphical user interface desktop environments for Linux such as Gnome and KDE, and Linux developers from Debian, Red Hat, SuSE, and others.

Gnome 2.4 now supports refreshable Braille displays and speech-synthesized software, says Janina Sajka, director of technology, research, and development for the American Foundation for the Blind.

By next year, the group plans to create an Assistive Technology Service Provider Interface that lets screen readers and magnifiers query and interact with graphical interfaces on a consistent basis. The group is also planning to develop shared I/O that lets technologies such as refreshable Braille readers and speech synthesizers plug in to a variety of different client devices. Another initiative will be the standardization of keyboard accessibility for those unable to use a keyboard or mouse, incorporating features such as "Sticky Keys" that let users press key combinations in sequence rather than having to hold them down simultaneously.

As society becomes more network-centric, the ability to work on a computer becomes less an advantage and more a necessity, says Scott McNeil, executive director of the Free Standards Group. People with physical impairments should have access to the same cutting-edge technology as anyone else, he says, adding, "On a more esoteric level, if you live long enough you're likely to encounter a disability. Why allow yourself or your loved ones to be shut out from modern technology?"

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