I played but a bit role in this story, though I watched it unfold with amazement. It was late 2005. A colleague mentioned that there were rumblings of concern in Massachusetts about their recent decision to move to ODF and what impact that would have on persons with disabilities. Although I am not an accessibility expert, I know the basics. (Every programmer should know the basics of accessibility, as well as the basics of internationalization, typography, human factors, performance, security, law, technical writing, project management and how to present and receive business cards in Asia).
Initially, I suggested that a file format has no relevance at all for accessibility. After all, the hard part of accessibility, the integration with screen readers was all at the application and operating system level. What difference could a file format make? The file format is not even involved except when loading or saving the document, right? But since knew ODF, I offered to do a quick spot check and report back. It wasn’t long before I was able to demonstrate a handful of places where data necessary to enable accessibility was not described in the existing specification. For example, although an imported image allowed an annotation of alternate text for use by screen readers, an OLE embedding did not.
To err is human, but what happened next was extraordinary. There is a natural tendency to shrink away from criticism, to retreat inward and retrench, and at all costs avoid admitting errors. But I personally believe that every time we are corrected or criticized, it gives us another opportunity to show our character by how we handle it. The unchallenged person may be a gentleman or a scoundrel. You do not know until he is under pressure. So it is notable that the OASIS ODF TC overcame its accessibility problems not with defiance and not with acquiescence, but by enthusiastically embracing the challenge, engaging the critics, including the aggrieved community, bringing in the experts, both from OASIS member companies as well as outside invited experts, and working within an open and transparent standards development process, rolled up its sleeves and got to work.
The OASIS ODF Accessibility Subcommittee first met on January 27th, 2006. They delivered their evaluation report on ODF accessibility in June of 2006, followed by contributions to the ODF 1.1 specification which was approved as an OASIS Committee Specification in October, 2006, and just this week was approved by the OASIS membership as an OASIS Standard. This took a few days over a year, start to finish.
This is what open standards are all about and why they are so damn important. It isn’t just about patents and lawyers, though that is certainly part of it. It isn’t just about getting your specification approved by ISO, though that is certainly part of it. It isn’t just about how little you can do to earn the label of “open standard”. It is about how much we can do together to improve some parts of the technological landscape that are broken today for some users, and have been for some time.
Congratulations are due the members of the Accessibility Subcommittee for their diligent efforts. But we haven’t heard the last from them. Their charter calls for them to continue their good work, to make additional accessibility improvements to ODF, look at new dimensions of accessibility, consider a wider range of disabilities and create a guide for ODF implementors on the best practices for implementing the accessibility feature of the ODF standard.
I look forward to their contributions to ODF 1.2 and beyond!