Massachusetts use of open formats mightent be such a concern for screenreader users afterall

When the US state of Massachusetts mandated only using open standards conformant tools when executing government business back in 2005 There was much concern among the visually impaired community. Not because they (we) are a bunch of Microsoft loving no-nothings but because sometimes its better the devil you know. Then, as now there is no office productivity suite which works a tenth as well with assistive technologies such as screenreaders as does MS office. Indeed as far as I know not one of the big name open source alternatives supports any screenreader even for the most basic tasks such as document reading, writing, saving and retrieval.

however I see in news announced this week that Massachusetts kowtows to Microsoft.
or in less journalistic language, the latest draft proposal from the state of Massachusetts recommends approving Microsofts Office Open XML (OOXML) format as an open format meaning that once again employees are free to use MS Office, the most screenreader accessible option.

I’m sure there are many who feel this development is retrograde but for those Massachusetts state employees whose jobs were at threat because the tools they use to undertake their work are suddenly deamed none conformant this will be a great releaf.

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4 Responses to “Massachusetts use of open formats mightent be such a concern for screenreader users afterall”

  1. Benjamin Hawkes-Lewis Says:

    As far as I can understand it, the problem you identify is partly real, but your formulation of it is largely backwards. Microsoft Office works with screen readers because screen readers vendors made a determined effort to make it work. On Windows, OpenOffice.org exposes functionality to MSAA in so far as it can (MSAA is extremely limited), and fuller functionality to the Java Accessibility API and complete functionality via its own rich UNO API. The big screen reader vendors have not chosen to make any special use of these APIs for OpenOffice.org; and their projects are not open source so there is nothing that OpenOffice.org developers can do to change that. JAWS (but not Window-Eyes) does have some basic support for the Java Accessibility API, but not enough to provide a good user experience. JAWS, Window-Eyes, and the new open source screen reader NVDA are all gradually implementing support for IAccessible2, an independent revision of MSAA, because that’s what Firefox is using. It may be that by piggy-backing IAccessible2 over MSAA, OpenOffice.org will be able to get more screen reader accessibility for free in the future. On, the GNOME desktop which has a more sophisticated Accessibility API (AT-SPI) than MSAA, OpenOffice.org can be used for “document reading, writing, saving and retrieval” with the relatively new Orca screen reader. Since there are several projects to enable Microsoft Office to read and write ODF (such as the OpenXML/ODF Translator Add-ins for Office project), the accessibility challenges currently faced by OpenOffice.org is not that good a reason for avoiding ODF itself in favour of OpenXML.

  2. Benjamin Hawkes-Lewis Says:

    As a postscript, it seems the NVDA developers are now implementing OpenOffice.org accessibility as part of Java accessibility. Of course, NVDA itself is still in very early days and the developers recommend not relying on it for primary access.

    It might be more cost-efficient to spend state funds on bounties for key open source functionality than to fork up yet again for Microsoft site licences.

  3. accessbrit Says:

    Thanks for the technical detail Benjamin – good points re ploughing more resources in to OS solutions might bring about greater benefits although that way we’ll continue to always wait for the assistive technology to catch up with the market software. It’s all progress in teh right direction but the new scope of the Mas provision should at least mean a user friendly solution for the individuals who don’t have the depth of technical knowledge to switch between office suites and/or assistive technologies. Not of course suggesting that many don’t have these skills but rather that it is unreasonable to always expect VI staff to provide their own technical support just because they use specialist software which is so often the case as their (our) IT skills improve.

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