Oracle Cuts Affect GNOME Accessibility Work

by Ostatic Staff - Feb. 08, 2010

Sun used to boast that it was one of the largest contributors to open source. That's being demonstrated now that Oracle has acquired the company. Oracle's acquisition of Sun, and subsequent layoffs, are having ripple effects on the open source community. The cuts are also hitting the GNOME accessibility (a11y) team and leading the project to think about the future of a11y efforts in GNOME.

Last week Oracle laid off two members of Sun's Accessibility Program Office (APO), including GNOME a11y team lead, Willie Walker. Joanmarie Diggs, who works with the team contributing to GNOME's Orca screen reader, says that as a result of the layoffs that "the accessibility of the GNOME desktop will become the open source equivalent of an unfunded mandate, doomed ultimately to fail," if Oracle doesn't reverse its position or if another company doesn't step up to help.

It's tempting to point a finger at Oracle alone here, but this just shows that all too few companies are sponsoring a11y work. If one company laying off a couple of developers spells trouble for the project, then there were problems before that happened. It is disappointing to see Oracle making cuts in a11y support, but Oracle shouldn't have sole responsibility for a11y in GNOME either. Other vendors have a strong interest in supporting GNOME's a11y efforts. Mozilla recently made a second donation to the GNOME Foundation to support accessibility, but the overall support for GNOME a11y doesn't look very robust.

This may be because a11y is typically not a problem most users think about. Users who don't need assistive technologies don't think about the need for assistive technologies. Developers who don't need assistive technologies often need to be reminded to think about a11y in their applications, whether or not they're working directly on things like Orca. In addition to showing how fragile support is for a11y work among sponsor companies, it also demonstrates the need for expanding a11y awareness throughout projects. Walker writes on the GNOME list that he'd like to "work hard to put myself out of at least one facet of my job:"

What I mean is that we need to embrace accessible design, development, and testing as a complete community, much as we do for internationalization. So, whereas not everyone needs to be developing assistive technology, everyone needs to be developing for accessibility. If we can accomplish that, the overall cost of accessibility goes way down and the quality goes way up.

This has been done before, on other technologies. The GNOME internationalization efforts have been very successful in addressing internationalization throughout the project. If the same attention was given to a11y, it wouldn't require so much work now.

Users can rest easy that Walker's work will continue on GNOME 2.30, but there's a lot of work to do on the GNOME 3.0 a11y roadmap. Walker points out that the immediate goals for GNOME 3.0 are not staffed appropriately at this time, and they that may need to be re-scoped if another company doesn't step up to help fund the work. Let's hope that a solution is found, otherwise putting Linux on the mainstream desktop is going to be much, much harder.