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Open-source developers focus on accessibility

KDE's developers unveil plans to make things easier for people with disabilities through their Linux desktop software.

Developers behind the next version of KDE, an open-source Linux desktop environment, are trying to make their software more accessible to people with disabilities.

Accessibility is a major theme at the KDE Community World Summit, taking place in Ludwigsburg, Germany. Earlier this week, the summit held a Unix Accessibility Forum, bringing together developers and people with disabilities.

During the forum, KDE developer Harald Fernengel presented a demonstration of the KDE developer tool, Qt, showing how it could be used with GOK, an on-screen keyboard of GNOME, another open-source Linux desktop environment, for people who have problems using ordinary keyboards. He also demonstrated KDE working with the text-to-speech screen reader Gnopernicus.

The next version of KDE, which will either be called 3.4 or 4, will be compatible with accessibility software, which currently only runs on GNOME.

KDE's developers are also keen to ensure that all applications on the next release fully support the Linux operating system's accessibility features and pledged to improve utilities that automate the use of a mouse, magnify parts of the screen and convert text to speech.

KDE developer Olaf Schmidt said on Tuesday that changes in Qt will ensure that all KDE interfaces provide the right information to these assistance technologies. He also pointed out that the GOK on-screen keyboard nicely complements the functionality of the KMouth text-to-speech converter.

"KMouth and GOK make a good match," Schmidt said. "If you lose your voice, you may also have lost movement for the same reason--you can then use your computer to communicate with the outside world."

KDE's accessibility forum was also attended by representatives from GNOME, Sun Microsystems, IBM, Novell, Trolltech and the Free Standards Group.

Janina Sajka, who leads the Accessibility Workgroup of the Free Standards Group, said users who care about accessibility are fundamentally agnostic about operating systems.

"The people who use these technologies don't care where the applications come from--they just want them to work," Sajka said.

Sajka warned that the high cost of proprietary versions of accessibility software was often prohibitive, particularly since many people with disabilities are unemployed.

Open-source alternatives are easier to customize than many proprietary options, giving disabled people more opportunity to tailor the software to their needs, Sajka said.

"The open-source environment is significantly more accessible, as nothing is hidden--all the configurations and data are available and can be modified," she said.

IBM is one of the main commercial providers of accessibility software, and KDE developers at the event reported that ViaVoice, an IBM application that converts speech to text and vice versa, would shortly be available for Linux applications.

Vanessa Donnelly, a usability and accessibility consultant for IBM, said IBM has several initiatives designed to make its accessibility software more affordable. Big Blue offers its Web Adaptation Technology, which enables users to adapt pages to their own needs, free of charge to disabled people and charities. In another initiative, IBM offered Home Page Reader, a screen reader product for the visually impaired, for free on certain government Web sites. IBM was unable to provide an example Web site.

Donnelly also pointed IBM's long-term commitment to making technology accessible. "IBM has been doing accessibility research for over 50 years. For example, we were the first to make a talking browser," she said.

Ingrid Marson reported for ZDNet UK.