Ubuntu Accessibility Part 6: Why Linux distributions should care about Accessibility
So why should Linux distributions care about putting time and effort into developing and improving something that is likely going to benefit a minority of users? Unfortunately, this is a hard question to answer, as for most distributions, all you're likely to get is cudos for offering accessibility features, and possibly more widespread advocacy, and community involvement from those people who find such accessibility features useful. For Linux distributions who have a vested interest in the enterprise desktop however, not supporting and integrating accessibility means a greatly reduced chance of deployment and support contracts in education institutions, and workplaces.
Around the world, many governments are coming to the realization that having equal opportunity employment and accessible workplaces is important for everybody, including those with disabilities. As information technology and computing in the workplace becomes more commonplace, so will the need for equal access to technology for everybody. For a business who needs to deploy several tens, or several thousands of machines for their employees to use, Linux is starting to be a serious alternative to Widows, and other proprietary operating systems. However, if the business wishes to remain an equal oportunity employee, with an accessible workplace, Linux starts to be much less viable as it currently stands, due to the lack of well integrated accessibility technologies in most Linux distributions that aim at the enterprise market. The fact that some distributions do offer accessibility is a plus, but without commercial support available for it, its not something a business is likely to risk, added to that there is no training available to teach disabled employees how to use the accessibility technology.
So how far along are distributions when it comes to accessibility? From my research so far, not many distributions have people in their respective communities who are actively trying to help improve that distribution's accessibility. Debian and Gentoo both have developers and community members who help where possible. Fedora has people who, while not helping with Fedora development directly, do makemodified versions of Fedora available with extra accessibility included. Ubuntu is also lucky enough to have such a community, with people like myself actively trying to help improve Ubuntu's accessibility. These communities have been formed due to a desire by all members to improve Linux's accessibility for themselves and others.
However, while the core developers of such distributions embrace the contributions made by community members towards accessibility, there is generally little to no proactive action taken by distribution developers, unless one of them has a vested interest in doing so. Some accessibility developers don't always try and get their modifications included in their distribution of choice, but release modified disk images, and unfortunately don't reach nearly as big an audience as they would if their changes were part of their distribution proper.
If a Linux distribution's developers, financial backers, and its community are seriously interested in integrating, and improving accessibility in their distribution, community advocates, as well as developers, should seek to get more community involvement. This would likely result in some community members actively getting involved with distribution development.
Linux distribution vendors who have a vested interest in getting their software installed on enterprise and education desktops, should seriously consider investing time and money into further developing their distribution's accessibility, and training support/training staff on how to effectively use and support accessibility technologies. Exactly how this would be done would be up to individual distribution vendors, but one approach could be to hire an individual from that distribution's accessibility community who is well versed in the current goings on, and future developments in the accessibility field. This person would then liaise with the community, fielding feature suggestions, helping triage bugs, and keep abrest of any Linux accessibility, UI, and web standards. They would also communicate with the distribution's developers and web site designers, to pass on feature requests and suggestions, and to keep developers informed about any testing that they, or members of the community have done, and the results of such testing.
I, and many other members of the Linux accessibility community strongly believe in improving Linux's accessibility for everybody, particularly for those with disabilities. We will keep on doing so, even after our major goals have been achieved. If you are a part of a linux distribution community, whether it be Ubuntu, fedora, Novell/Suse, Debian, Gentoo, or one of the many smaller distributions out there, I strongly encourage you to contact your distribution's developers and community, and let them know about how important accessibility is for all of us now, and in the future. With the backing of several distributions, we can reach our goals that much sooner.
As for Ubuntu's accessibility, I'll tell you about how you can get involved with the Accessibility team in my next, and final post of this series.