GNOME Accessibility Hackfest

GNOME Accessibility Hackfest LogoSponsored by the GNOME Foundation

Under sponsorship from the GNOME Foundation (thanks!), I attended the GNOME Accessibility Hackfest at CSUN in San Diego last week. Having been in the accessibility space for quite some time, I’ve been attending CSUN conferences since around 1990 or so. CSUN is a perfect venue to hold an accessibility hackfest because it offers an opportunity to immerse members of the GNOME Accessibility community into an environment chock full of technology and users all focused on accessibility. CSUN is also a great opportunity to show our wares and get feedback from our consumers.

Having recently been laid off as a result of Oracle’s acquisition of Sun, I have had to turn my attention towards finding a new job that will allow me to keep my family happy and stable.  As a result, I’ve not been able to focus on GNOME Accessibility as much as I would prefer.  I did play a mental game with the layoff, though — I had 7 weeks of vacation I never took, but for which I received financial credit.  So, I viewed those 7 weeks as time I could spend working on making a graceful transition out of my GNOME Accessibility leadership role; the job hunt could wait a little bit. The timing also happened to opportunistically align with CSUN 2010 and GNOME 2.30.

I had a few primary things I wanted to accomplish:

  • Help gracefully transfer leadership to one or more people in the community
  • Help the community plan for GNOME 3
  • Help spread the word that GNOME’s open source accessibility solution is for real
  • Help encourage others to join the GNOME accessibility community

Graceful Transfer of Leadership

The Oracle layoff didn’t offer any chance for a graceful transfer of leadership. That sounds cold, but with layoffs you need to cut ties quickly and surely so both sides can move on. That’s just the way they work and I can now say I have been on both sides of the equation. You just need to keep your eyes out the front window and away from the rear view mirror.

Having a lot of emotional stake in the success of GNOME accessibility, however, I couldn’t just walk away and say “see you later, bye, take care of the fish.” Instead, I needed to be sure that the GNOME Accessibility community would reform and refocus for success.

At the hackfest, we had a good discussion on overall leadership of GNOME Accessibility. We didn’t end up with any one clear person to “herd the cats”, but we did instead see a number of people step up to leadership roles and more participatory roles, which I’ve captured on the GNOME 3 planning page. Many thanks to everyone who took on some extra work to help make GNOME Accessibility succeed.  Truly a wonderful community.

One thing I wish we had been able to accomplish is clearly identifying a person who is able to be the “point person” for GNOME Accessibility — keep it focused, keep people connected, be the “go to” person for any questions anyone may have both inside and outside the GNOME project. For example, we need someone to prod people for accessibility discussion on new module proposals, someone to help prevent existing modules from regressing,someone to prod the release team about accessibility issues in the release, someone to help represent and expose GNOME accessibility to the world, someone to keep tabs on where things are, etc., etc.

I believe we think the “point person” might be a task we should relegate to the release team, though we understand that this should be done by adding a resource to the release team.  This person should be able to both help with the work the release team is currently doing while also being a strong advocate and communicator for accessibility.  I am still toying with the idea of doing this in my spare time, but something tells me it will not be a “spare time” task.  I tend to jump in and immerse myself in a task and I’m not sure I could successfully limit myself to just a couple days a release cycle and a few hours in some release team meetings.

In any case – the message here is that GNOME Accessibility community is stepping up. Totally rocking, and totally the right thing to do. It needs to operate as a global community that is not wholly dependent upon any one given funding source.

GNOME 3 Planning

Some people have suggested that it will be OK if GNOME 3 goes out the door inaccessible, using the analogy that it took GNOME 2 a few releases before it became accessible. I disagree. In my opinion, going out the door inaccessible is a regression and violates the position that accessibility is a core value of GNOME.

Having said that, there is a lot of work to do to make GNOME 3 accessible. I have often referred to GNOME 3 as the “perfect storm” for accessibility. With Bonobo/CORBA deprecation, GNOME Shell, and WebKit all staring us in the face, the situation can seem dire. Couple that with the reduction in investment from a number of places, and bracing for the storm can seem hopeless.

A great way to avoid hopelessness is to create an achievable plan.

During the CSUN hackfest, we went over GNOME 3 planning to see what can be achieved. The sordid details are on the planning page, so I’ll give just a summary here:

  • Community members are stepping up to take ownership and help out where they can. This includes the following (my apologies if I forgot someone or something — it’s not on purpose!):
    • Joanie Diggs taking over leadership of Orca as well as continuing to work on WebKitGtk accessibility
    • Li Yuan, Nagappan Alagappan, and Mike Gorse joining forces to help with AT-SPI/D-Bus, with Li also helping to figure out other AT-SPI related stuff, such as libgail-gnome and login-helper
    • Ke Wang continuing his work with the Java ATK Wrapper as a replacement for the Java Access Bridge for GNOME
    • Eitan Isaacson working on a new way to represent the AccessX status, helping with Caribou, and helping with Accerciser
    • Bryen Yunashko taking ownership of leading VizAudio to completion
    • Ben Konrath continuing his work on Caribou, including incorporating ideas he got from seeing things at CSUN
    • Alejandro Piñeiro Iglesias (API) taking leadership for Clutter and GNOME Shell accessibility
    • Flavio Percoco Premoli continuing work with MouseTrap, including incorporating ideas he got from seeing things at CSUN
    • There is a lot more, but it involves people who were not at the hackfest and I will follow up with them
  • We decided it was acceptable to not port CSPI to AT-SPI/D-Bus.  The biggest impact this will have will be on GOK since GOK relies immensely on CSPI. With the work on Caribou emerging as a potential replacement for GOK, we decided the risk is OK.

In any case, the GNOME 3 plan looks like it can be achieved, though not without a lot of work. I also believe the community still needs a point person to help keep everyone working together, be able to help make adjustments, and communicate with the release team. This is still a big hole that needs to be filled.


CSUN also offered us the opportunity to do a lot of outreach to the community. We accomplished outreach at CSUN via a number of talks we gave as well as having a strong presence in the GNOME Foundation Booth. The talks were all attended pretty well and were well received. The booth had a constant steady flow of traffic from interested people, many of which who sought the booth out on purpose.

There was a *lot* of interest in GNOME Accessibility this year. Trust me – having been presenting on open source accessibility at CSUN for nearly 20 years, this year showed a marked increase in interest. For example, I’ve given talks to rooms “packed full” of 1 or 2 people in the past. This year, we gave talks to rooms that were really packed full of people. I suspect it is due to two things:

  1. GNOME Accessibility is “for real”. GNOME has real accessibility solutions that work for real people around the globe. It’s no longer demoware.
  2. The economy sucks. People are looking to open source solutions as real alternatives to commercial solutions.

I came back with a number of leads that I have already followed up with in e-mail.  These leads include getting GNOME Accessibility mentioned on various accessibility resource sites, which will expose GNOME Accessibility to a larger number of people searching for accessibility solutions. We also had some interviews on the floor, helping spread the word to a larger audience.

Growing the Community

In our work with students in projects such as HFOSS and Project:Possibility, we have been able to not only expose accessibility to the next generation of developers, but we have also been able to add value to GNOME itself. As a result of these positive experiences, I reached out more to universities this year, including CSUN itself and the University of South Florida. Steve Lee and I also had a great conversation with people from Michigan State University.

Having talked with the above and having given talks at other universities about open source accessibility, I am also seeing a pattern developing: more and more universities are starting to add open source classes to their curricula. These classes help teach students open source culture, tools, etc. These students are the next generation of developers, many of whom will be creating the next generation of user interfaces.

By exposing students to accessibility early, they will start adopting accessible design practices and will carry these forward into their jobs. These students are the vehicle to help me achieve this goal: “even if you do not work on assistive technologies, you need to work on accessibility.” (me quoting myself, sorry ;-)). The more we can accomplish that, the more accessible the world will be. We will also spend a lot less money doing it.

Note that the timing is perfect right now. Many universities are just beginning to ramp up in this space, and they are also looking to the open source community for guidance on how to make the connection. As a result, I think we need to do more outreach at the academic level. Get entrenched in their emerging open source curricula and we have a win-win situation.

Thank You!

Thank you Eitan Isaacson for your work organizing the GNOME Accessibility Hackfest at CSUN. I like what you did. I also listened to what you were saying to people visiting the booth and I like what you had to say. Nice job.

Thank you Dr. Joseph Scheuhammer for making a screencast of his GNOME Shell Magnifier work. It’s starting to look quite useful and we had it and number of other screencasts running on a loop in the booth.

Thank you Joanie Diggs for taking over leadership of Orca. You rock and you are a huge reason why Orca is what it is today.

For everyone on GNOME 3 planning page – thank you for your commitments. You are wonderful people and are the reason GNOME 3 will go out the door accessible. Your energy and commitment to accessibility is amazing; you do accessibility because you want to and you make others want to do accessibility. You are one of the best teams I have ever worked with.

Thank you Flavio for not killing me while I snored loudly in my sleep. You’re a good roommate.

Thanks also to Peter Korn who put together a presentation and gift thanking me for the years I’ve worked on open source accessibility, and thanks to everyone who signed it. I’m a heartless bastard who doesn’t cry, but I can tell you that it touched me deeply.

Thank you to the GNOME Foundation and Mozilla for their sponsorship of the GNOME Accessibility Hackfest at CSUN and for subsidizing my attendance. I would not have attended the hackfest had it not been for your help.

3 thoughts on “GNOME Accessibility Hackfest”

  1. Hey Will,

    It was my pleasure to be your roommate and I thank you for being my roommate. I would never kill you, I’m going to leave that to those little animals you love. You’re a good rommate too and I slept like a baby so don’t worry about that… XD

    You did an awesome job too so many thanks for being there…

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