Accessibility: The Next Challenge for Linux

by Bryan Pfaffenberger

Linux (and free software in general) is about social justice. If you don't believe this assertion, just ask the growing numbers of Linux users in impoverished countries. In some countries, the cost of a personal computer, operating system and a commercial office suite exceeds the per capita annual income. Projects such as KDE, the K Office suite, GNOME, Gnumeric and Abiword promise to bring computer technology to people and communities who might not otherwise have the means to afford it. Still, the Linux community could be doing a better job of addressing the needs of another disadvantaged community: people with disabilities. And we're not talking about small numbers here. According to a recent Microsoft estimate, as many as 30 million U.S. citizens and half a billion people worldwide have physical or cognitive disabilities that limit their use of inaccessibly designed computer systems.

Here's an area in which Microsoft has established a commanding lead. In 1995, following several years of internal consciousness-raising by accessibility champion Greg Lowney, a former Windows project manager, Microsoft announced a formal corporate policy of taking responsibility for the accessibility of its products. You'll learn more about the results of this policy as you read what follows, but let me make my point up front. Although Microsoft deserves unstinting praise for its leadership in this area, there's an argument (and, I think, a very important and convincing one) that the interests of people with disabilities aren't well-served by a market that gives them no genuine alternative to Microsoft products. A critical analysis of Microsoft's accessibility initiatives discloses that they are not entirely altruistic; in fact, they fit very neatly into Microsoft's ambitions to acquire near-total dominance of the PC operating system market. What's more, Microsoft's efforts to draw communities of people with disabilities into a Microsoft-only world could serve, in the end, to discourage the development of revolutionary new assistive technologies that rely on a looser coupling between the operating system, window manager, and desktop environment - precisely the technical advantage that Linux provides.

I'll develop and defend these points in a bit, but here's the conclusion up front. Commendably, Microsoft's Accessibility and Disabilities Group has done a great deal of research on how computer hardware and software can be made more accessible to people with limited vision, hearing, or dexterity, and they've put the results of this research on the Web. Anyone developing software for Linux should stop right now and read this document thoroughly. Chances are you'll learn how a few simple corrections to your interface could make a major difference in your program's usability for a person with limited vision, hearing, or dexterity. How does your software measure up?

Microsoft's Accessibility Initiatives

If there's one area in which Microsoft deserves unalloyed praise, it is the firm's commitment to accessible hardware and software design. Lest anyone misconstrue my argument, let me clarify from the get-go that I have nothing but admiration and respect for the people within Microsoft who have courageously championed the accessibility cause, and in so doing, made a genuine difference in the lives of thousands of people with disabilities who could not otherwise use computers. Still, Microsoft is a profit-driven company, and what's more, it's a company that doesn't seem to know where the line is when it comes to grabbing market share. Without meaning to impugn the motivations of people within Microsoft who work to make the company's products more accessible, I would nevertheless like to ask to what extent this laudable effort might in fact have another, less altruistic dimension.

Let's begin by critically examining what Microsoft means by accessibility. On one of the company's web pages ("Accessibility and Microsoft"), accessible computers and software are described as those which "make it possible for more people to use these technologies successfully in work, education, and recreation." But you don't have to read much further to find evidence of the company's blitzkrieg marketing mentality at work. It's all very well to design special-purpose programs for people with disabilities, we're told, but such measures shouldn't isolate users: "Most people with disabilities need to use mainstream software programs to take advantage of the latest features and to facilitate sharing working or sharing information with their friends and coworkers" ("How Computers Are Accessible", emphasis mine). For this reason, it logically follows that accessibility features should be implemented at the operating system by means of application programming interface (API) features and standards that every Windows programmer can use. In fact, the company now mandates that programmers conform to the company's accessibility guidelines. In order to qualify for the Windows logo program, software vendors must support the standard Windows system size, color, font and input settings; ensure compatibility with the High Contrast option; provide documented keyboard access to all features; provide notification of the keyboard focus location; and convey no information by sound alone.

What does accessibility mean, then, in Microsoft's terms? Simple: that Microsoft Windows and as many Windows applications as possible should meet minimum accessibility standards. On the surface, this is perfectly natural and understandable, and even commendable; after all, it's reasonable that a company would phrase accessibility guidelines in such a way that highlights its own product's marketability. But this policy has the very congenial and attractive benefit of fitting into Microsoft's across-the-board efforts to preserve what Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson calls the application barrier to entry, that is, the network effects caused by the enormous mountain of Windows-compatible software. A network effect occurs when a product, even an inferior one, is so overwhelmingly dominant in the market that consumers experience penalties if they choose a competing product, even one that is technologically superior.

The relationship between Microsoft's accessibility policies and its efforts to preserve the application barrier to entry becomes clearer when one examines the firm's message to its corporate customers: you'd better choose Windows, or you'll get sued. In the U.S., according to Microsoft, federal laws (including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) give employees the right to "sue their employers or prospective employers if the software they use isn't accessible" (Greg Lowney, "Need for Accessible Design"). In a business with 15 or more employees, the document warns, failure to comply with these laws could result in lawsuits or fines.

But what constitutes "accessible software"? Given Microsoft's leadership and the prevalence of Microsoft's products in the marketplace, it seems reasonable to assert that Microsoft Windows' accessibility features define a reasonable level of accessibility, given the limitations of current technology. And there is ample evidence that this is precisely what is happening. For example, the National Federation of the Blind recently argued in a U.S. federal court that America Online, Inc. (AOL) violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide access to blind users. The reason? AOL's proprietary software uses "unlabeled graphics and commands that can be activated only by using a mouse and custom controls" (cited in Jonathan Bick, "Does the ADA Apply?", National Law Journal, May 15, 2000). The lawsuit alleged that this design feature prevents the use of screen-reading programs, and by extension, discriminates against users with limited vision. What is particularly interesting about this lawsuit is that it defined AOL to be a "public accommodation" as defined by the ADA, as if AOL were akin to a public school or government office. AOL is therefore allegedly violating the ADA, which holds that "no individual should be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation" (42. U.S.C. 12182[a]). A clear implication of this and other court cases is that any employer running software that does not conform to the minimum prevailing standards for accessibility - as defined de facto by Microsoft's accessibility initiatives - runs the risk of a lawsuit. The moral of the story? You'd better run Windows.

Is a Microsoft-Dominated World in the Best Interest of People With Disabilities?

Please do not misunderstand the argument I'm making. I applaud Microsoft's efforts to improve the accessibility of their products, and I'm all in favor of AOL making their software more accessible to the visually impaired. It isn't Microsoft's fault that they're the leading game in town when it comes to accessible operating systems, notwithstanding the good work done by Apple and other firms. Still, it's reasonable to ask whether a Windows-dominated world is in the best interests of people with disabilities, and I think the answer is no.

To put this argument in historical perspective, it's worth remembering that for many people with disabilities, the rise of Microsoft Windows represented an accessibility setback, at least initially. Previously, MS-DOS-based technologies had sufficient time to develop to some degree of maturity, and were widely used. On balance, graphical user interfaces pose more challenges to people with visual, hearing and dexterity disorders than text-based operating systems. As laudable as Microsoft's accessibility initiatives are, they can be construed as a catch-up game in which the firm has managed to overcome some, but not all, of the inherent limitations imposed by a graphical user interface. It's to Microsoft's credit that the company has overcome many of these limitations, but the near-total dominance of Windows in the PC marketplace rules out the sort of interface design flexibility that could enable users with special needs to switch to a text-based operating environment.

In contrast to the architecture of Microsoft Windows, Linux (like all UNIX-like operating systems) decouples the user interface from the underlying operating system, meaning users are free to use text-based or graphical software (or both at once, if they wish). If they elect to use a graphical user interface, they are similarly free to choose from a wide variety of window managers, utilities that provide windowing services for applications. They are also free to choose among alternative desktop environments, such as GNOME and KDE, which provide a consistent, easy-to-use setting for running applications and managing one's system. The point here is that highly accessible software could be developed at any or all levels of the operating system hierarchy, and what's more, such software can be tailored to the needs of specific communities; indeed, to those of specific individuals. Furthermore, this flexibility can be maintained without asking users to give up their ability to exchange documents or communicate with other users - provided, that is, that Microsoft does not succeed in establishing its proprietary standards and protocols as the basis for communication and data exchange on the public Internet.

Let's Provide an Alternative

With KDE 2.0 and a rejuvenated GNOME on the horizon, it's time for the Linux community to seize the initiative in the accessibility sweepstakes. At the minimum, window managers and desktop environments should conform to the minimum accessibility guidelines for Windows-certified software:

  1. Allow users to customize system screen display size, foreground and background colors, focus colors and selection colors to their needs. Ensure that all information conveyed with color is also available without color.

  2. Implement a high-contrast option without requiring the user to alter a document or run specially designed software.

  3. Provide well-documented keyboard access to all program features, and thoroughly test keyboard controls to make sure a user with limited vision will not become "trapped" or run into unpredictable consequences while attempting to navigate the application using only the keyboard. There's a strong need here for keyboard shortcut standards that are uniformly applied and utilized at both the desktop environment and application levels. Consistency is an important element of software accessibility.

  4. Provide notification of the keyboard focus location in a way that is not too subtle for people with limited vision.

  5. Provide visual as well as auditory information; don't convey information by sound alone.

  6. Provide text equivalents for all information; don't convey information by graphics alone. Provide textual summaries for graphs and charts.

Get Involved

You can help.

First, visit the Accessible Linux Homepage. Housed at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, this student project developed features akin to Microsoft's Accessibility Options to the XFree86 version of the X Window System. This project will need a guiding hand, and perhaps a new home, to develop the momentum it needs to succeed.

Second, fire up your favorite GNOME, GTK or KDE application, and see how well it conforms to these guidelines. Imagine you're a user with limited vision, limited hearing, or limited dexterity. Where would you run into problems? Would you run into a dead end that left you unable to use the program at all? Document what you've learned, provide positive and practical suggestions and send them to the program's authors - and don't forget to thank them for their efforts! If you're a programmer, offer to help implement your suggestions. Send them a copy of this article, too.

For More Information...

De La Rue, Michael, 1997. "Linux Access HOWTO".

Trace Research and Development Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2000. UNIX and Linux Software Toolkit.

Walker, William D., et al., 1992. "Making the X Window System More Accessible for People with Disabilities".

Welcome to Bobby ( Bobby is a Web-based tool that analyzes web sites for their accessibility to people with disabilities. You can analyze your site by typing its URL into the page's text box.

Bryan Pfaffenberger is a professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of several books about Linux, including Linux Clearly Explained (Morgan-Kaufmann, 2000) and Mastering GNOME (Sybex, 2000).

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