Advocacy of open source software
Last updated: Jun 11, 2020
In this post, I’ll detail my experiences of advocating for accessibility in open source software, why it is important, and how others can help. I’ve not been doing it for long, but at least now, I’ve done a bit. I’ll also touch upon why I think open source software, on all operating systems, is important, and what closed source and closed feedback systems cannot offer, which open source grants. On the other hand, there are things which closed source somewhat grants, but which has faltered slightly in recent days. I will attempt to denote what is fact and what is opinion, this goes for any post of a commentary of informative nature.
The Appeal of Open Source
Open source, or free software, basically means that a person can view and change the source code of software that they download or own. While this doesn’t mean much to users, it does mean that many different people can work on a project to make it better. This has no value on its own, see the “heartbleed” SSL bug and its Aftermath, but as with SSL, things can obviously improve when given an incentive.
For now, open source technology is used in many closed source operating systems. For example, the Liblouis braille tables are used in iOS, macOS, and most Linux distributions through BRLTTY. While the software is not perfect, it is often made for more than one operating system, has a helpful community of users, and, greatest for accessibility, developers who are more likely to consider accessibility. This is greatly improved with platforms for open source development, like Github and Gitlab, which allow users to post “issues” on projects, including accessibility ones.
The Appeal of Closed Source
People like getting paid. I should know, as a working blind person who does love getting paid for time and effort well spent. People love keeping things hidden while being worked on. I wouldn’t want a reader reading an incomplete blog post, after all, and spreading the word that “Devin just kind of wrote a few words and that’s all I got. from the blog.” People love being able to claim their work as theirs, instead of having to share the credits with other people or companies. I don’t have direct experience with this, because I need all the help I can get, but in my opinion, it is a factor in choosing to create on your own, as a user or a company. Another great thing about closed source is that your competitors can’t copy what you’re doing, as you do it, and when you’re an important company, with allegiance to your shareholders, you must do anything to keep making money. But, what about accessibility?
Open Source Accessibility
Accessibility of open source projects vary a lot. For example, before Retroarch was made accessible, its interface was not usable by blind people. Now, though, I can use it easily. However, current versions of the KDE Plasma desktop do not work well with the Orca screen reader. The following quote is from the release notes for KDE’s latest desktop version:
KDE is an international technology team that creates free and open source software for desktop and portable computing. Among KDE’s products are a modern desktop system for Linux and UNIX platforms, comprehensive office productivity and groupware suites and hundreds of software titles in many categories including Internet and web applications, multimedia, entertainment, educational, graphics and software development. KDE software is translated into more than 60 languages and is built with ease of use and modern accessibility principles in mind. KDE’s full-featured applications run natively on Linux, BSD, Solaris, Windows and Mac OS X.
“Modern accessibility principals,” you say? In my opinion, we seem to be talking about different definitions of “accessibility.” Yes, there are multiple definitions. One is accessibility in the sense of being able to be accessed, another is the ability to be found, and the ability of being easy to deal with. As stated in the About section of the site, I use accessibility to mean being able to be used completely by blind people. This carries with it the implication that every single function, and all needed visual information, can be conveyed to a blind person in order for it to be accessible. This rules out the “good enough” approach that so many blind people accept as the status quo. Luckily for blind people who would love to use KDE, there is work being done on this issue. Gnu, the project behind much of Linux, also has an accessibility statement, which does seem to be very out of date, as it references flash player and Silverlight, which are no longer in common use, and does not reference Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and other modern technologies which are not open source, but which include assistive technologies. I encourage every adventurous blind person to make themselves available for testing open source software and operating systems; user testing was mentioned by the KDE team as something blind people could do to help. Believe me, having an operating system which is a “joy to use” is a dream of mine.
Gnome, and Mate, accessibility are okay, but they do not come close to the accessibility of Windows and Mac systems. For a good example, if you press Alt + F1 in Gnome, and probably Mate too, you may only hear “window.” Advanced users will know to type something in Gnome, or use the Arrow Keys in Mate, but regular users should not have to learn to hunt around due to bad accessibility, and the fact that less technically inclined users use Linux is a testament to blind people’s ingenuity and ability to adapt, rather than the accessibility of the platform.
Open source accessibility is so hit and miss because there are so many standards. There is the GTK framework for building graphical apps, which does have some accessibility support, but developers must label the items in their programs with text. There is the QT framework, which seems to have more poor accessibility support. Basically, developers can do anything they want, which is good for freedom, but often is not great for accessibility. Also, much of the community has not heard of accessibility practices, do not know that blind people use computers, or think that we must use braille interfaces to interact with computers and digital devices. This is a failure on our part, as we do not “get out there” on the Internet enough. With the advent of an accessible Reddit client, this may begin to change. Further work must be done to give blind users an accessible Reddit interface on the web for users to use on computers, not iPhones. However, Github is very accessible, and there is nothing stopping one from submitting issues.
Closed Source Accessibility
“Okay but what about Windows? And Apple? You like Apple, right?” Basically, it’s hard to tell. Software doesn’t write itself, it is written, for now, by people. People can make mistakes, ignore guidelines, or simply not care about accessibility. However, those guidelines do exist, and are usually one standard, like the iOS accessibility standard. This means that companies can develop accessible software easily, and are held accountable by managers to uphold accessibility. But, even the best of accessible companies do not always do the right thing. Apple, for example, has created two services, Apple Arcade and Apple Research. Apple Arcade contains no games which a blind gamer can play without expending much more effort than a sighted gamer. Apple Research contains some questions with answer buttons which are not labeled, or cannot be activated. Does Apple think that blind people do not want to game, or that we don’t care about our hearing, heart, or for women, their reproductive health? Apple has also created Swift Playgrounds, an app for children to learn to code. This is accessible. But what about adults? Shouldn’t blind adults, who are usually technically inclined enough, be given a chance to learn to code? I’ll probably rant about this in a future article.
Microsoft has been on an accessibility journey for a few years now, but even they have a few problems. First, the voices in Windows 10 are poor for screen reading tasks. They pause way too long at the end of clauses and sentences, leading me, at least, to press Down Arrow to move to the next line before the last line was actually done being spoken, all because it paused just long enough to make me think that there was no more text to speak. Microsoft’s XBox Game Pass is great, but I could not find any accessible games in the free rotations. Sure, there’s Killer Instinct that many blind people can enjoy playing, but I found it not only inaccessible, as the menus do not speak, but boring, as the characters all seemed to simply do the same thing. I know that games do not have to be accessible to be fun, but I expect companies who showcase games, like Apple with Arcade, to have at least one accessible game for blind people to enjoy. And I also know that neither Apple nor Microsoft makes these games, but they do choose to advertise them, endorse them even, and it shows that, for Apple Arcade at least, video games are not something which they expect blind people to play. Microsoft is proving them wrong, with the release of Halo with screen reader usability in menus, and the possibility that the new Halo game will be accessible.
Another problem with Microsoft is that not all of their teams are onboard. Like Apple with Arcade and Research, Microsoft has the Rewards team. Their quizzes require one to move items around to reorder answers to get the quiz correct. This may be easy, and perhaps fun, for sighted people, but are simply frustrating for blind people. Other problems include the release of the new Microsoft Edge, which, for most users of screen readers, require that the user turn off UI Automation in order to read some items on the web. Otherwise, if Microsoft’s upcoming foldable phone comes with greatly enhanced accessibility relative to pure Android, and the Narrator screen reader, optimized and made great and enjoyable for a mobile experience, I think that Microsoft could take plenty of market share back from Apple of mobile phone users. They already have most general purpose computer users who are blind, so taking from Apple would be a huge win for them regarding accessibility. But, on that, we’ll have to wait and see how far Microsoft takes their commitment to accessibility. The more cynical side of me says that Microsoft will simply slap Android on a folding phone and release it, because why fight Apple.
So, what can we do to make accessibility better? Just about all open source software, including the stuff making up this blog, is hosted on Github. Just about all companies, of closed source software, claim to want your feedback. So, I recommend giving them any feedback you have. I know that giving feedback to Apple is like throwing $100 bills into the ocean, giving your valuable time to something which may offer no results, and just gives you the robotic “thanks” message. I know that sometimes talking to Microsoft’s accessibility team may seem unproductive, because they lead you from Twitter to one of a number of feedback locations. I know that feedback to open source software projects may take a lot of time and explaining and promoting accessibility to a community which has never considered it before, but it all may help.
For a great, and successful, Github issue regarding accessibility, see this issue on accessibility of Retroarch. You can see that I approached the Retroarch team respectfully, with knowledge of basic accessibility and computer terminology. Note that I gave what should happen, what is happening, and what can be done to fix the problem. As the saying goes, if you do not contribute to a solution to a problem, you are a part of the problem. Blind people will need to remember to give solutions, not just whine about something not working and can’t play Poke A Man like everyone else.
Also, share links to your feedback with other blind people who can vote, thumb up, or comment on it. Remember, if you do comment, please remember that feedback does not net instant results. I’m still waiting on Webcamoid to have an accessible interface, and Adding Active Accessibility into Games for Retroarch, and This Delta issue. But, at least I’ll know when something changes, and I could even Pay for features to be implemented.
This is opposed to the closed source model, where feedback is “passed on to the team,” or you are thanked, by your iPhone, for your feedback, but do not hear anything back from developers, and you most definitely can not pay for specific features to be worked on, or donate to projects that you feel deserve it. You must hope and have faith that large companies with more than one billion users cares enough to hear you. For perspective, if every blind person stopped using an iPhone, Apple would not miss many lost sales, compared to the billions of sighted users. However, the engineers who work on iOS accessibility are people too, with deadlines, lives, and feelings, and we should also respect that they are probably tightly restricted in answering feedback, fixing bugs, and creating new, exciting features.
As for me, I will continue to support open source software. I’ll keep using this mac and iPhone because they work the best for me and what I do for work and writing. But, believe me, when something better comes along, I’ll jump ship quickly. As blind people, I feel, we cannot afford to develop brand loyalty. Apple, Microsoft, or Google, I think, could drop accessibility tomorrow, and there we’d be, left in the cold. I highly doubt they will. They may let it lie stagnant, but they probably won’t remove it. I do not write this to scare you in the least, but to make you think about how much control you actually have over what you use, how companies and developers view us, and how we can improve the situation for ourselves. if sighted people notice a bug or want a feature in iOS or Windows, they can gather their tech press and pressure Apple or Microsoft. If we find an accessibility bug, do we have enough clout, or unity, to pressure these companies? Writing feedback, testing software, trying new things, writing guides and fixing documentation, or, if able, translating software into other languages are all things that any blind person can do. I’m not saying that I’m perfect at any of this. I just think that we as a community can grow tremendously if we strike out from our comfortable Windows PC’s, Microsoft Word, audio games, TeamTalk, and old speech synthesizers.
I’ll give some projects you could try out and give feedback on: