Why Accessibility in Open Source is Important

It's not just for people who are disabled


While reading This article on how much Windows phones home to Microsoft, I thought about just how much we don't really have control over our data when running Windows. Who knows what all is being sent over all those network transmissions. I mean, when your cryptographic services contact other services over the Internet, like, why? On the Hacker News posting about this, a commenter asked why, after all this, someone would still use Windows. I responded with the usual “because accessibility, unfortunately.”

So, in this article, I'll talk about why accessibility should be the first thing every contributor to free and open source software thinks about. People with disabilities are some of the most disadvantaged, unvalued, discarded, and underrepresented people on Earth. Abled people don't want to think about us, because they don't want to imagine what it'd be like to be one of us. They fear going blind, deaf, or losing mental faculties, even though they know it'll happen eventually. So, supporting us is the right thing to do, provides an alternative to a disadvantaged population, and supports yourself when you need it most.

Got morals?

If you practice any kind of moral system, you probably know that you should help the poor. Some moral systems include people with disabilities, as we're often some of the most poor, especially in non-western countries. If you practice religion, you may or may not have seen a verse insisting that you not put a stumbling block in front of the blind, or other such admonitions. This should be the case in software as well.

We're all human, except for the bots crawling through this for keywords for search engines and such. We all are born with different traits. Some of us were smaller babies. Some of us were smarter babies. And some of us were disabled babies, or born prematurely, or survived even though the hope for such was low. So, shouldn't we account for these things? Shouldn't we prepare, in advance, for, say, a deaf person to use your chat program, or a blind person to try your audio editor?

Supporting people with disabilities is the right thing to do. It's the human thing to do. You don't want to look like those soulless corporations, do you? And even the corporations make an effort to support disabled people, even if to prop up their image. Can the open source community not do better than an uncaring, unfeeling money-printing machine? Surely, humans are better than the corporate machine!

And yet, in open source communities, people with disabilities are often ignored, or told they'll have to be a developer to make things better, or told to “be the change you want to see,” which is just plain demoralizing to a non-developer. Developers, and communities in general, must learn to empathize with all users, before they themselves become the ones needing empathy.

We are Everywhere

Have you ever called a bank, a hospital, a non-profit organization, the Internal Revenue Service, or your phone company? Yes? Then chances are, you could have been speaking with a person with disabilities. Blind people work in many call centers, and at many phone network providers, like Verizon, AT&T, and others. Do you know what operating system they're more than likely using? That's right, Windows. Why? Because accessibility on Windows, using Windows screen readers, and Chrome or Edge, is top-notch. Now, they may not be using the latest version of Windows, and hopefully it's all patched up, but we don't know that. The only company that does is Microsoft, and it sure isn't going to talk about its weaknesses.

So, how about the developers of free and open source desktop environments, web browsers, and operating systems be the stronger party and ensure that no one has to ever run Windows? After all, it's your data that's being stored on Windows computers, in Windows servers, spoken by, more than likely, $1099 closed source screen readers that could be doing anything with your data. If it sounds like I'm trying to scare you, you're right. We have asked nicely for the last decade to be taken seriously. All we've gotten is a shrug, a few nice words, and a “don't bother me I'm engineering,” kind of vibe after that. Well, you might as well start engineering for us before it's too late for you.

Where do you want to be in forty years?

It's no secret that we're all getting older. We age every second of every day. And, as we age, our bodies and minds start to fail.

Our eyes grow dim, our ears don't hear the birds outside anymore, and our minds tick slower and slower. But our hobbies, or our jobs, never quite leave us. Some developers can just climb the chain until they're high enough to not need to code anymore, thus bypassing the need to confront their failing eyesight, on the job at least. Some developers just retire and quit coding, choosing to give the wheel to younger, and hopefully brighter, generations. But why? You know so much! You still have those ideas! You still want to see freedom win!

Let's try another problem, those who become disabled younger in life. There are many genetic issues, diseases (like COVID-19), and so on that may cause even a younger person to become disabled. You may lose your vision, have a car accident, lose some hearing from listening to loud music, or maybe you just don't have the energy that you used to have. But you still want to code! You still want to create! And you have unfinished projects that need fixing!

In both cases, helping people that are disabled will help you when you need it most. We, people who are disabled, simply came with what you'll be getting in the future. So why not start now? Help make desktop environments a joy to use for blind people, so when your eyes start to hurt after a while of using them, you can just close them, turn on accessibility features, and continue working with your eyes closed! Or, if you make things easy for people with mobility issues, you can work one-handed when the other cramps up. Or, if you work on spell checking, autocorrection, and word suggestions, you can take advantage of that when a word just won't come to you, or when you forget how to spell a word.

So how can I help?

We need people, not companies. Companies, like Canonical, will sit there and work on their installer accessibility, while the real issue is the desktop environment. The System 76 folks only need accessibility help when they get to the GUI of the desktop environment that they're building. The Gnome folks say that they need coders, not users. So I have little faith in corporate-backed open source. They're just another machine.

So, community support is where it's at, I think. But it can't just be one person. It has to be everyone. Everyone should be invested in how they're going to use computers in the future. Everyone should care about themselves enough to consider what they'll do when, not if, they go blind, lose hearing, lose energy, lose memory, lose mental sharpness. Everyone should be into this, for their own sake.

There are many Linux desktop environments besides Gnome. KDE is what I'd be using if I could see. There's also Mate, Cinnamon, LXDE, XFCE, and others. Why mainstream distributions of Linux choose to stick with Gnome is beyond me. Below are some ideas to get the community started.

  • Use Linux with a screen reader. If you don't like it, we probably won't either.
  • Add Accessibility labels to whatever you're making.
  • Look at the Code of the Orca screen reader
  • Gather people with disabilities to get feedback on your desktop environment or distribution.
  • Have either your entire team focus on accessibility, or, if you must, make an accessibility team.
  • Spread the word about your accessibility fixes, put them front and center!
  • See how much your image improves, and how loyal disabled people are!

Yeah, it looks a bit selfish. But I've grown to expect people to be selfish, and care about how they're seen, and getting more users and such. That's just how we disabled people have to be most of the time. So, prove us wrong. Show us that the world of communities, democracies, people of high ideals, care about the disadvantaged, about their own security and the security of others, and themselves in the future. Let's make open source really open to everyone. Let's make freedom free for everyone. Why not?


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Devin Prater @devinprater