Open Source Screen Readers?
A few years ago, a handful of Stanford University Computer Scientists and professors from their business school worked together on a paper discussing the relative security of free and open source systems versus security in proprietary software systems. They concluded that GNU/Linux servers were considerably more secure than those from Microsoft, Apple, Sun Microsystems and Others That Use Proprietary Software. The Paper Proffered the Notion That Open Source Software Had Fewer Quality Problems Because There Were Literally Tens of Millions of Programmers with Access to the Source Code, Hence, an Enormous Number of Programmers Were Available to Fix the Bugs in the Open Source Programs. At the Same Time, Though, Few Open Source and Free Software Products Have Become Popular among the Average Users As Microsoft and Apple Provide Much More Friendly Interfaces to Application Level Software.
There Has Been a Flurry of Activity in the Free and Open Source Communities for Making Software That Is Accessible to People with Disabilities. As I Wrote the Other Day, along with a Handful of Partners, I Have Launched Hofstader.com to Serve As a Portal to Open Source and Free Access Technology Programs. The Question Arises, Though, if the Open Source Community Cannot Provide Interfaces That People without Disabilities Find Desirable will We Be Able to Succeed in doing so for Our Community? I Feel That the Answer to This Question Is, Probably.
The Source of My Optimism for Open Source Access Technology Comes from the Same Theoretical Basis for the Explanation As to Why the GNU/Linux Systems Are Able to Provide Greater Security Than Solaris and Other Proprietary Systems. Having Worked at Henter-Joyce and Freedom Scientific and Remaining Active on Mailing Lists Populated by Blind Computer Users, I Can Attest to the Great Expectations That Our Community Places up on the Developers of Software We Use. Sometimes, the Criticism can be so Strong and Feel like Such Terrible Hostility That Some Programmers Will Shy Away from Listening. In Most of the Cases That I've Observed, However, People Who Make Access Technology, Especially the Open-Source and JAWS Script Hackers, Listened to the Suggestions from the Community and Work Their Asses off to Implement the Features Requested.
On the Gnome Desktop, There Are Currently Two Open Source Screen Reader Projects Underway. LSR from IBM and ORCA from Sun Microsystems. The Non-Visual Desktop Application (NVDA), an Open Source Solution Written in Python, Has Recently Been Released for the Windows Operating System. There Are Also Quite a Number of Free and Open Source Screen Reader like Programs for the GNU/Linux Text based Console Systems. I Have yet to Use Any of These, so My Opinions about Them Are Informed Entirely by Other People.
JAWS Scripts, However, Probably Represent the Largest Body of Open-Source Access Technology in Existence Today. People like Brian Hartgen, Doug Lee, Jim Snow Barger, Jamal Nazrui and Far Too Many Others for Me to Be Able to Remember Them All Right Now, Extend JAWS and Provides Support for Applications That Freedom Scientific Chose Not to Make an Investment in. In Some of These Cases, the Scripts Developed by People in the Community Provide Access to Essential Programs Required by Many of Us to Do Our Jobs. These Free and Open Source Script Sets Get Updated and Have Features Added Far More Frequently Than Organization As Large As Freedom Scientific Would Be Capable of Doing. Without Some of These Open Source Scripts, I Could Not Do My Job and I Expect There Are others out There in Similar Situations.
Thus, I BELIEVE THAT THE JAWS Script Example Can Be Applied to a Free and Open Source Screen Reader for the Windows Platform. NVDA Has Just Been released so the Jury Is still out on Whether or Not the Community Will Embrace It or Not It (My Single Complaint with NVDA Is That It Is Written in Python, a Language with Strict Indentation Rules That I Am Uncertain about How Well a Blind Person Can Interact). Other Than That, Though, It Looks like a Pretty Good Start.
To Expand the Possibilities of Mainstream Operating Environments and Open Source Screen Readers, Though, I Recommend That Microsoft Released Narrator for Vista and Apple Release Voiceover As Open Source in the Same Manner That IBM and Sun Have Done with LS Are and ORCA. With These Tools in Hand the Blind Programming Community and Its Friends Will Have a Solid Launching Point on Which to Build a Tremendous Level of Support for the Programs We Use on a Daily Basis. Having Access to the Source Code Will Also Give Those of Us Interested in Exploring New User Interface Paradigms a Solid Framework from Which We Can Work.
Will Open Source Screen Readers hurt the Current Access Technology Companies? They Will Certainly Put a Dent into the Software Income but, If a Blind Person Can Save a Thousand Dollars by Getting a Free Screen Reader They Might Turn around and Purchase a Braille Display, an Embosser or Some Other Cool Gadget. Meanwhile, to Survive, Programs like JAWS, Window-Eyes and the Others Will Have to Provide a Compelling Reason for a User to Spend Their Hard-Earned Money to Buy a Screen Reader If a Credible One Is Available for Free. I Believe This Will Certainly Fuel Innovation and the Net Effect Will Be That We All Benefit.