Making choice and innovation accessible to all

13 minute read

I previously blogged about the Mozilla Foundation and the CSUN conference on information technology and persons with disabilities. As noted in the post the Mozilla project and Firefox are really gaining traction with people concerned about web accessibility, thanks to the hard work of people like Aaron Leventhal. Inspired by Aaron’s recent interview in the online publication Voice of the Nation’s Blind, I want to take a broader view and present my thoughts on why accessibility is important for the Mozilla project, the role that Mozilla and Firefox might play in the world of assistive technology (AT) as it evolves, and what the Mozilla Foundation might do to help this process along.

Why accessibility is important for Mozilla

Since I joined the Mozilla Foundation last year I’ve spent a fair amount of time working with people involved in Mozilla-related accessibility issues. Why do I consider accessibility important enough for the Mozilla Foundation to spend time and money on it? I’ve been thinking about this question and I’ve concluded that there are lots of reasons, all good but some more compelling than others.

I’ve often heard the following reasons given for promoting accessibility; I think they’re good reasons, but in various ways they leave something to be desired (as I note):

  • Accessibility is important to comply with government and corporate standards. My initial encounter with accessibility issues occurred when I was working in Netscape’s government sales group and got called in to a government agency to hear complaints that Netscape Communicator was not very accessible to blind users and other users with disabilities, and in particular was not compliant with the US government’s Section 508 requirements.

That sort of experience is one way people think of accessibility: At best it’s an annoyance you need to worry about if you’re doing government business, at worst it’s something you could be sued over. In that respect and others accessibility is not that dissimilar to security: just another cross-product issue that developers have to worry about, but often wish they didn’t.

  • Making software accessible helps people with disabilities live more productive and satisfying lives. Many people working in the accessibility field either have disabilities themselves or have known people with disabilities, and use their personal experiences as inspiration for their work on accessibility-related projects. For example, in his interview Aaron Leventhal notes his encounter with a man who was blind and deaf and used a Braille display to assist him in running a non-profit organization. As Aaron put it, The experience had quite an impact on me… [I]dealism is what brought me into the business of accessibility.

However, although inspiration can be very motivating I think it would be a mistake to rely too much on it. Otherwise I think the rest of us (i.e., those not working directly in the accessibility field) run the risk of falling into the Olympics syndrome: We watch the games on TV, watch the five-minute videos about John the speed skater or Jane the marathon runner, think how inspiring!, and then after the games are over we promptly forget about John or Jane, leaving them to live and work in obscurity for the next four years.

  • All of us will likely have a disability at some point, so it’s in our own interest to support better accessibility. For example, I’ve always worn glasses, but recently my vision has been deteriorating a bit; thus I’m very glad for the features in Firefox that allow enlarging the text on web pages. Similarly, we never know if we or a member of our families might become permanently blind, paralyzed, etc.

There’s nothing wrong with an appeal to self-interest (indeed, I’ll repeat this tactic below); the problem is that in this case the self-interest is not necessarily that strong—when we’re young we think we’ll never grow old, when we’re healthy we don’t think about getting sick, and if we don’t have any disabilities then we discount the possibility of ever having any in the future.

Can we come up with more (and perhaps even better) reasons to support accessibility-related work? Here are some that I think are important in the context of the Mozilla project:

  • Improving accessibility is key to our mission of promoting choice and innovation on the Internet. In this respect improving accessibility is like supporting multiple platforms and multiple languages: Our mission is not just to promote choice and innovation for people using Microsoft Windows XP, so we develop Mozilla-based products to support three main platforms (Windows, Mac, and Linux) and encourage ports to many others. Our mission is not just to promote choice and innovation for people who speak English, so we support localization of Mozilla-based products into as many languages as possible. Similarly, if we promote choice and innovation only for people who have good vision, who can use a mouse, who can type, and so on, then we won’t be fulfilling our mission. If we’re going to promote choice and innovation then we should promote it for everyone, without exception; otherwise we’re not living up to the ideals we set for ourselves.

  • Users with disabilities could be key supporters of the Mozilla project. As I’ve previously discussed , there are several different groups who for one reason or another are part of the Firefox value network and who in their various ways support the Mozilla project. In particular the project depends on the efforts of those who help evangelize the use of Mozilla-based products, test the products and report bugs, create extensions for Firefox and other products, develop new web applications supporting Firefox, contribute to Mozilla code and documentation, and so on. In working to make Firefox and other Mozilla-based products more accessible we have an opportunity to build another group of passionate project supporters and contributors.

  • Improving accessibility is key to improving access to information, communications, and applications for everyone. We sometimes tend to think of accessibility issues in a very narrow fashion, for example, as just involving getting products to work with screen readers. But in reality accessibility is a very broad topic; in fact, it’s so broad that in my opinion it’s even misleading to use the term accessibility, because that term is stereotypically associated with technology used by people with disabilities. The overall goal is really enabling someone to more easily and quickly find information, communicate with others, and engage in online transactions, in situations where there are constraints on the input and/or output mechanisms that can be employed. Stated that way accessibility benefits everyone: Lots of people might like to have better ways to use the web while driving a car, or hurrying through an airport, or dealing with a dog or a toddler, or doing a host of other things that don’t involve sitting in front of a traditional keyboard and computer display.

Why Mozilla is important for accessibility

Above I’ve discussed why I think accessibility is important for the Mozilla project. Now I’d like to talk about what I think the Mozilla project has to offer to the community of people involved in accessibility issues as users of assistive technologies, as creators of AT products, and so on.

  • We can bring more choice and innovation to AT users. There are plenty of people with disabilities who are quite happy to use Internet Explorer, Windows, etc., but there are other people who don’t want to be restricted to a single set of products. We can provide them with more choices, just as we provide those same choices to everyone else.

  • We can give AT users more ways to help themselves. Up to now AT products have been created, sold, and supported using the traditional proprietary software model. We can offer AT users not just alternative products but an alternative way of doing things, namely the open source model. This is potentially attractive both to individual users and to organizations advocating on behalf of those users. As Aaron Leventhal put it in his interview,

Perhaps the most powerful approach is for blindness and other disability-related organizations to work together, and actually hire their own members with the technical skills to go work on the problem. After all, this is open source, so why not make it how you want rather than deal with company X's idea of accessibility?

Beyond just scratching their own itch, working on open source projects like Mozilla can also be a way for people with disabilities to build their skills and find new job opportunities.

  • We can drive new and better accessibility standards for the entire industry. Firefox now has enough market share that we can work with other organizations to develop standards, and then be a key driver for those standard by implementing support for them in our code base and encouraging their implementation in AT products with which we interoperate. DHTML accessibility is just the first example. We’re also having a lot of impact on improving desktop accessibility APIs by explaining how to use them, making them more powerful, and synchronizing them to work in similar ways so that the differences among them are lessened. This will make it much easier for other future cross-platform applications to be accessible. We communicate with the developers of all the various web and desktop accessibility APIs to reduce unnecessary gaps and differences, and in this way and others help bring the whole industry together onto new and better standards, to the benefit of everyone.

  • We can support the growth of a new generation of accessibility developers, especially for free and open source software. We can get talented new developers to work on accessibility in Mozilla, and they can then take what they’ve learned to other projects or to other non-accessibility areas of the Mozilla codebase.

  • We can help bring the benefits of disruptive innovation to the assistive technology industry. In his interview Aaron has a lot to say about what he sees as the current state of stagnation of the AT industry. To be fair, I think that what Aaron sees as stagnation can also be seen as a necessary conservatism caused by the long learning curves for people to become productive with AT products, combined with AT vendors having to continually adapt to whatever changes Microsoft and other software vendors make to their products. In such an environment change is not necessarily always a welcome thing.

However in the longer run I think that the AT industry will be affected by the same forces for change that are now affecting the software industry at large: the growing popularity of free and open source software (FOSS), the rise of web-based services as an alternative to or even replacement for desktop applications, and the move away from traditional software licensing schemes to alternative business models.

The Mozilla project is deeply involved in all three of these trends, and as such I think that we can potentially be a force for positive change in the AT industry. To take but one example, in a more web-centric world more and more significant applications will be web-based, and adapting such applications to the user’s particular needs and abilities may be more straightforward in the long run, since the web is based on standard protocols and formats, and the nature of the web means that web applications can be modified and repurposed without necessarily having the cooperation of the application provider. (Greasemonkey is a good example of what’s possible in this domain.)

Where do we go from here?

So, accessibility issues are important to us, and we can play an important role in promoting better accessibility for the Internet and web. How specifically should we proceed? Here’s what the Mozilla Foundation has been doing thus far, and what we could be doing:

  • Promote better accessibility for Firefox and other Mozilla-based products. This is our most important priority, has been the primary focus of Aaron’s and others’ work over the years, and is also the primary focus of the accessibility-related grants that the Mozilla Foundation has been making. At present we have a pretty good accessibility story for vanilla Firefox running on Windows; however our story becomes less good when we turn to non-Windows platforms like Linux and OS X, to products other than Firefox (e.g., Thunderbird), and to Firefox extensions and other Mozilla-related add-on products. We need to do more work in all these areas.

At a platform level, our goal is for Gecko 1.9 to be the first platform that makes it possible to write true cross-platform accessible desktop applications (i.e., using XUL).

  • Provide support and advocacy for efforts to make Web 2.0 applications and services accessible. The Mozilla project has been a pioneer in this area by virtue of Firefox’s support for accessible DHTML. However there’s much more we could be doing, including evangelizing the use of accessible DHTML to web application providers and other browser developers, and helping to support creation of better documentation and tools to help web developers make AJAX-enabled applications more accessible.

Here our goal is for developers to be able to write powerful web applications with HTML and JavaScript while still offering excellent accessibility. Such applications if written carefully will also have the additional benefit of working well on small devices using browsers like Minimo (since writing accessible web sites is very similar to writing good sites for small devices), as well as providing other benefits such as good search engine optimization.

  • Help with other open source accessibility efforts. As we try to improve our own accessibility story on non-Windows platforms, we’ll find that we’re constrained by the accessibility architectures and tools on such platforms. In particular, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on Linux-based platforms, e.g., to provide better accessibility APIs, screenreader software, and so on. We should help support such efforts if and where it makes sense.

The accessibility of open source software is important in particular because of the battle in Massachusetts over the Open Document Format—it’s a serious tipping point for government open source adoption. In the past open source software was considered generally inaccessible, which sent the message that customers need to turn to proprietary software companies that are legally required to make their products accessible; otherwise improvements to accessibility wouldn’t happen. Now there’s a counterexample: When people ask whether products that support ODF will ever be as accessible as Microsoft Office, Firefox is often brought up as an example of a product that can be even better in terms of accessibility.

  • Help promote and sponsor other new approaches to better accessibility. As noted above, the move to web-based applications opens up some new opportunities to providing better accessibility, and it may make sense for the Mozilla Foundation to sponsor research and development work in this area. As one example, perhaps some of the work being done to provide better systems for bookmarking and site navigation might be adaptable to improving accessibility for complex web sites. (And vice versa: research into improving the accessibility of complex web sites might provide good ideas for how to improve bookmark systems and browser navigation aids.)

In summary, accessibility is important to the Mozilla Foundation and will continue to be important to us. The project has done a lot thus far, but we’ve only scratched the surface of what we might do in the future.

However I don’t want to give the impression that accessibility will be the only or even just the primary focus of the Mozilla Foundation. It just happens to be a good example of the sorts of things I think the Foundation should be involved in: activities that support the overall mission of the Foundation, complement the core product development activities of the Mozilla Corporation, and are consistent with our nonprofit nature.

For all the reasons discussed above I’ll continue to push to have the Foundation be involved in the accessibility arena, but at the same time I’d like to see us become more active in a wide range of other activities. More on this in future blog posts.