Linux and People with Disabilities

Eric S. Raymond, famous Linux personage, wrote a post on his blog that reminded me of my old blog postings of a year ago, Why SATV doesn’t use Linux Part 1 and Part 2.  Raymond was writing about Linux Hater’s Blog, but there was a very interesting thread in the comments that I will quote:

esr Says:
November 18th, 2008 at 4:08 am

>If you’re going to criticize people like him who write off hackers as “freaks and geeks”, I think it’s only fair for us to retire terms such as “lusers” and “room-temperature IQ”.

Huh? How does that follow? I could pity a blind person while still thinking that Braille accessibility is tremendously important. That’s a hypothetical; there aren’t actually enough blind people to make Braille accessibility much more than a feel-good checkbox item in the larger picture. [Emphasis added-DM] My point is you’re confusing two separate issues here. They’re related only in that you can’t successfully evangelize to an audience you pity or despise, it tends to leak through in your presentation and turn them off.

Note that point of ESR’s, I’ll come back to that.  Continuing the thread, a blind user weighs in:

David Says:
November 18th, 2008 at 2:52 pm

ESR: interesting (though not altogether surprising) to see you consider accessibility secondary and basically a PR issue. As a blind computer user (and no, this is not identity politics, I don’t define myself that way but it is obviously part of who I am) it’s also interesting to note that the best I can expect from you is pity. Fortunately the accessibility situation in gnu/linux is driven by people who think it more than a feel-good checkbox, thus orca, emacspeak, BRLTTY, and some other very capable accessibility solutions. I’d also point out that accessibility, as a rule, runs together with good design, since an application that can be interrogated about state by an accessibility aid is an application that can be interrogated about state for any other purpose (testing, use as the back-end of a bigger process, etc).

Obviously no one is obliged to care about accessibility, nor to have any particular attitude with respect to blind people (or anyone else). I’d just say though, that pronouncements like that make it rather difficult for me to advocate for free software inside the blind community. Oh well.

ESR responds:

esr Says:
November 18th, 2008 at 8:41 pm

>As a blind computer user (and no, this is not identity politics, I don’t define myself that way but it is obviously part of who I am) it’s also interesting to note that the best I can expect from you is pity.

You need to work on your reading comprehension. I spoke of ‘pity’ only in a hypothetical.

It is true that I put accessibility for blind and handicapped people relatively low on my priority list; that’s because there are much larger populations, with more influence on demand patterns, that we haven’t got the hang of writing for yet. When planning for victory, you have to plan for victory, not just for small gains that will make you feel good.

David:

David Says:
November 19th, 2008 at 7:13 am

ESR: OK, I understand your remark to be hypothetical. For whatever reason I understood the hypothetical to refer to the other clause (as in, caring about accessibility is hypothetical but pitying blind people is actual). My reading comprehension is greatly aided by less ambiguity.

As to the tactical issue, it can be argued both ways. I think demand patterns of public entities are going to be somewhat affected by the accessibility situation (not speaking of blind people here specifically). In addition, life expectancy keeps going up, so we can expect more disabled people (maybe medicine will fix this in the future, but maybe not). To close, accessibility, like security, tends to be problematic when bolted on. It’s the kind of thing that is usually cheaper to design in advance. The good thing about Unix philosophy is that it tend to be conducive to such designs, given the tendency to separate processing from presentation, and the desire to make things automatable. So far I’m pretty sure gnu/linux is the only OS that can be installed from scratch by a blind person, for instance, without help. Not sure about macs.

ESR:

esr Says:
November 19th, 2008 at 7:36 am

>To close, accessibility, like security, tends to be problematic when bolted on.

That’s an interesting point. I don’t think your argument about increased life expectancy is sound – blindness and motor impairment may happen as complications of age-related diseases, but they’re not common enough to make the impaired population much larger relative to the general population of oldsters. You’re still competing for UI design time against a much larger group of people who have good visual acuity and fine motor control; their desires, e.g. for better-tuned visual interfaces, have to come first if our goal is to win market share.

On the other hand, you’re clearly right that accessibility can’t be painted on, and that making GUIs accessible to the blind is especially problematic (I have given related issues some thought in connection with my unfinished The Art of Unix Usability).

My first thought on The Art of Unix Usability was incredulity, to put it very politely.  Unix was never ever ever designed for "usability” for its original audience of developers never mind Aunt Tilly.  It would be too cruel for me to elaborate further. 

But not about ESR’s opinions on access to his “product” (open source Unix) for people with disabilities.  I’m very disappointed, but not particularly surprised. 

People with disabilities (of which I am sadly one) are exquisitely aware of the “tyranny of the majority”.  Let me quote ESR again:  “You’re still competing for UI design time against a much larger group of people who have good visual acuity and fine motor control; their desires, e.g. for better-tuned visual interfaces, have to come first if our goal is to win market share.

This is the open-source community’s response to that old old PSA you may have seen if you’re old enough, the one with the school administrator who tells parents of a special-needs child, “We can’t accommodate you for just one child!” 

Linux can’t accommodate just one blind user!

An even crueler irony is that ESR almost gets it:  “On the other hand, you’re clearly right that accessibility can’t be painted on…”

No bleep.  Accessibility to the disabled in modern GUI’s is nothing more than exposing the mechanisms of the interface to third-party applications so that they can present the desired information in large text, speech, captions, Braille or whatever the user with a disability might need.  Not to mention input from voice recognition programs, special keyboards and sip/puff interfaces.

You sure can’t bolt that on after the fact.

I’m not sure the bazaar of Eric’s, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, is concerned with people with disabilities, other than the obligatory response, “Well, if you want it, write it from scratch yourself!”.

The only reason Linux has accessibility features is because Sun developed Orca, the screen reader/speaker/assistive technology software that’s in many distros, notably Ubuntu.  Sun.  A commercial concern.  A Cathedral, rather than the Bazaar.

Companies like Sun, IBM and Novell know full well the desktop solutions they sell to enterprises must be usable by many different users, including those with disabilities.  It’s the law in the US.

Imagine a very experienced accountant working for your firm.  She’s been in a car accident and detached her retina and lost the use of her good arm. 

Do you want to tell her, “Well, most people don’t have your problems.”  “There’s a much larger group of people who have good visual acuity and fine motor control“. 

That could get you sued.

Even if you don’t advocate litigation (I don’t), it’s hard not to be insulted by this unfairness.  Most people who encounter friends, family and co-workers with disabilities would try to help and not be that impersonal.

Eric, what do you say to Aunt Tilly?

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