Advocates for disabled wary of open source

In Massachusetts, the decision to dump Microsoft has some disabled employees worried for their futures.

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BOSTON -- Beleaguered Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn has resigned, but the controversy surrounding his decision to adopt OpenDocument formats won't end with his departure. State officials haven't indicated they plan to amend Quinn's plan to adopt OpenFormat standards by Jan. 1, 2007 -- a deadline that has advocates for people with disabilities worried.

At a December State House forum focused on the future of electronic document management, advocates forcefully reminded state officials, industry executives and academia that the move could jeopardize jobs unless care is taken to make the new technology usable for everyone.

Speaking from the audience during a question-and-answer period, Brian Charlson, vice president of computer training at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass., said he and others with visual impairments rely on the adaptive technologies developed over the years to work with Microsoft products. Their jobs depend upon it. With 70% unemployment among the disabled, "the thought of change that could affect that in any way is frightening," Charlson told the panel.

Microsoft products have only gradually become user-friendly for the disabled, as third-party vendors have generated a suite of tools that cater to the visual and motor-impaired user. While the representatives for the disabled do not doubt that new formats can be made user-friendly, they worry that these modifications will take considerable time and money.

In response to concerns, Quinn assured forum attendees that no one will be left behind -- and said the initial deadline could be pushed back to accommodate the needs of employees with disabilities. "We will not disenfranchise anybody in the community," he told a packed room.

He was joined on the panel by Robert F. Sproull, vice president, Sun Microsystems Laboratories, Sun Microsystems Inc.; Bob Sutor, vice president, standards and open source, IBM; Alan Yates, general manager, business strategy, Information Worker Group, Microsoft Corp.; and Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

The Massachusetts controversy

State CIO Travelgate closed

CIO Peter Quinn defends OpenDocument

Sproull did agree that there is "work to be done" to accommodate disabled employees. He insisted, however, that the open source format allows for a rapid pace of innovation. Sutor said products based on it would be accessible by the state's deadline. Barbara Lybarger, general counsel for the Massachusetts Office on Disability, said the state is "still in the process of investigating the particulars of what works and what doesn't work."

Bill Allan, president of The Disability Policy Consortium Inc., a not-for-profit organization of volunteer disability rights activists, said his group is preparing a preparing a formal statement. on the issue. "It is clear when we ask them direct questions, the open source and open document industry is nowhere near ready to make the Jan. 1, 2007, deadline," said Allan, reached after the meeting.

It's not clear yet how Quinn's surprise Christmas Eve resignation will affect the open source plan. An internal memo Quinn sent to staffers has appeared on several IT blogs. According to those reports, the e-mail read, in part: "I have become a lightning rod with regard to any IT initiative. Even the smallest initiatives are being mitigated or stopped by some of the most unlikely and often uninformed parties."

His departure is the latest wrinkle in a controversial decision made in September by the Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD) to move away from proprietary office product applications from Microsoft and other vendors to those based on open standards, such as the OpenDocument Format (ODF) ratified by OASIS, a not-for-profit, international consortium.

Doug Robinson, executive director of National Association of State CIOs, said the organization has not taken a position on open source or its ramifications for state employees with disabilities. But the political fallout of Quinn's open source decision is not a common scenario, he said. "This is just one in a series of architectural decisions that every state makes, so, no, I don't see this as a major issue on the plate of state CIOs. The situation in Massachusetts has become politicized, but I would say it's a relatively nominal discussion point in almost every other state. States are running open source and open standards in many areas. It's just something they make a business decision based on their current environment."

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