Disabled advocates wary of march toward open source

In Massachusetts, the decision to adopt OpenDocument formats has led to nasty debates, one CIO resignation and a list of concerns issued by advocates for the disabled.

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.

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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).

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.

It's not clear yet how Quinn's surprise Christmas Eve resignation will affect the open source plan. 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. In recent weeks, the Romney Administration opened the door for Microsoft, praising the software giant's decision to submit its Office Open XML format to Ecma International, a standards body, indicating that Massachusetts would consider multiple office applications that meet its new open format requirements.

Judy Brewer, director of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) at the W3C, said Microsoft has an advantage when it comes to accessibility for the disabled, having already confronted disability issues for more than a decade.

"When Microsoft moved from 3.1 to Windows 95, Microsoft initially indicated they would not build in a screensaver, which excluded the blind," Brewer said. "Massachusetts took some pretty strong action to push Microsoft to build that in so that the state could continue purchasing Microsoft offerings, and Microsoft was also getting pressure from other sources," said Brewer, interviewed following the forum.

"As a result of 11 years of development, there is extensive support for accessibility needs in the Windows operating systems and Windows-based applications. The disability community in Massachusetts has come to rely on that support, and they are used to those products," she said.

Barbara Lybarger, general counsel for the Massachusetts Office on Disability, said the state is working on the issue. "We're still in the process of investigating the particulars of what works and what doesn't work," Lybarger said.

Some advocates for the disabled are taking a harder line with the state. 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 statement expressing its reservations.

"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.

"We've said that the state really needs to assess the individual needs of disabled employees, and they need to get out from behind their desks to do it, " he said. "Every state has [already] put a lot of money into vocational rehab to train people on Microsoft Office platform, which is 99.9% of the job market."

Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State CIOs, said the organization has not taken a position on open source or its ramifications for state employees with disabilities. "We support both the state and federal law on accessibility as it relates to IT resources, but we haven't crafted any kind of specific policy statement related to that," he said.

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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