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Updated OpenOffice 'good news for administrations'

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The improved accessibility features included in today's new version of Apache OpenOffice, an open source suite of office productivity tools, is good news for public administrations, expects Rob Weir, Project Management Committee Member at the Apache Software Foundation. Public administrations favour software solutions with strong accessibility support, he says. "By including Iaccesible2 support, we've removed a potential objection against the adoption of OpenOffice."

On Tuesday, the Apache Foundation released version 4.1.0 of OpenOffice. "A highlight of this release is support for the Iaccessible2 interface, an open standard for communicating with assistive technologies, enabling more effective use of OpenOffice by persons with visual impairments."

Iaccessible2 is an application programming interface, written to produce a "usable and accessible OpenDocument Format (ODF) based office suite.

According to Weir, work on Iaccessible2 started in late 2005, when the state of Massachusetts in the USA was considering to make ODF its default electronic document format. The API was developed initially by IBM, standardised at the Linux Foundation and then submitted to ISO (ISO/IEC TR 13066-3:2012). The Linux Foundation says that the Iaccessible2 fills "critical accessibility API gaps in earlier work" done by a proprietary software vendor. The tool improves rich document applications, including office suites and web browsers.

Challenges met

Apache Foundation member Weir: "Changing the specification alone is not sufficient. The applications need to be updated as well. Iaccessible2 is a standard for how the application communicates with screen readers. Applications that support Iaccessible2 give a better experience for users who use screen readers."

The new version of OpenOffice makes it easier for computer users with visual impairments to use the office suite. To explain the importance of Iaccesible2, the Apache Foundation in its announcement on Tuesday quotes David Goldfield, a Computer Technology Instructor who works with the blind, and who helped test OpenOffice 4.1.0. According to Goldfield, computer users who are blind use software packages known as screen readers, allowing the user not only to hear keys which are typed but also to use the keyboard to read and review everything which is on the screen.

Obstacles overcome

"Before OpenOffice 4.1, a blind user could use OpenOffice only if the Java Access bridge was installed and enabled. In addition, the user had to navigate to OpenOffice's accessibility options to ensure that the built-in assistive technology support was enabled. For some users, performing these tasks was a challenge. With the new Iaccessible2 code, OpenOffice should be accessible to screen readers right out-of-the-box, right when the program starts."

The Apache Foundation says that blind users with a screen reader that supports Iaccessible2, will be able to access documents, spreadsheets as well as items which are in the menus and various dialogue boxes without the need to manually enable accessibility or install any additional components.


More information:

Apache Open Office
About IAccessible2
ISO/IEC TR 13066-3:2012
Rob Weir's (2007) blog post on ODF and accessibility
OSOR news item

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