Interview with Willie Walker

GNOME Accessibility Project Maintainer

by DaveNeary

  • Can you describe yourself & what you do for GNOME a little?

I've been working on Accessibility for nearly 20 years, with all of that being focused on platforms using the X Windows System. Some of the early work I did was to develop AccessX in collaboration with Mark Novak at the TRACE Center. AccessX, which is still in use today and is now part of the XKB standard, provides keyboard enhancements (StickyKeys, SlowKeys, RepeatKeys, etc.) for people with physical impairments. In the very early 1990's, I also helped create the first service oriented architecture for accessibility, RAP (the Remote Access Prototol). This work was done in collaboration with Georgia Tech. All of the ideas carried forward into modern accessibility infrastructure designs such as that seen in the Java Accessibility API (which I helped create) and the AT-SPI (which was based on the Java Accessibility work). I also led two open source projects around speech -- FreeTTS is an open source speech synthesis engine and Sphinx-4 is an open source speech recognition system.

These days, I'm focused mostly on the Orca screen reader project, but I'm also acting as the person to help coordinate and organize accessibility activities across GNOME. It's a very busy job.

  • Can you explain what accessibility is, and why it's important to GNOME users?

Our main goal with accessibility is to make a platform where people with disabilities have equal and compelling access to the graphical desktop. This is important for many reasons, the most important of which is that it is the right thing to do. As we see with projects such as Dogtail, LDTP, and Strongwind, all of which use the AT-SPI infrastructure, we also see how the accessibility support can be much farther reaching. A stale cliche we use to describe this effect is "electronic curbcuts." In the physical world, sidewalks have ramps on them that cut through the curb to make a smooth transition to the street. While these curbcuts were for wheelchairs, they also benefit others such as those pushing strollers.

  • What exactly are you announcing with the accessibility outreach project, and why do you consider it significant?

The outreach program is a way for community members to test the accessibility waters by doing their choice of several long term and short term tasks. The long term tasks are on the order of 6 months, and the short term tasks are on the order of 2 weeks. The tasks were chosen by the GNOME accessibility community as being some of the most important work needed and include areas where developers and non-developers alike can participate.

The significance of this effort is that accessibility is being recognized at the board level. When I started working on accessibility 20 years ago, it was always a game of "Mother May I?" and continual negotiation with developers and management. Accessibility was always viewed as that once-in-a-while special interest segment you see on the nightly news -- sappy music playing in the background with the narrator using words such as "bravery," "overcoming hardships" and other content-free ilk meant to focus on the disability and tug at people's heartstrings.

Over the years, I've seen the mentality change. There are still those special interest segments with sappy music narrated by some teary eyed tart, but we're also seeing people making accessible design part of their normal everyday thinking. People "get it." We see companies like Sun Microsystems supporting leadership roles in creating and building accessible design into platforms such as GNOME. We see accessibility having an impact on the decisions being made to procure and deploy software. We see mainstream developers incorporate accessibility considerations into their applications. We see increased understanding that it is about independence, efficiency, and productivity for everyone.

So, "GNOME Outreach Program: Accessibility" represents more exposure to more people, especially people who will "get it" and have the ability to make a difference.

  • What results are you expecting from the initiative?

I'm expecting that accessibility awareness will grow within the community, that we will get more developers to include accessibility considerations in their daily designs and work, and that we will get some really important work done in the process.

  • Can you perhaps give an overview of existing GNOME technology for accessibility, describing what the target audience is, and how it helps? is a good spot to start for the target users. The underlying AT-SPI infrastructure, which is used by many of the assistive technologies, is discussed at

From the base platform perspective, GNOME has:

  1. Built in keyboard navigation. This allows people to use the desktop and its applications without needing the mouse. This is very important for users who cannot use the mouse.
  2. AccessX keyboard enhancements. AccessX features allow people to use the keyboard who may not otherwise be able to do so. For example, the StickyKeys feature of AccessX allows people who can only type with one finger to do chording operations such as logically holding down a modifier while pressing another key.

  3. Theming. The theming support of GNOME allows people to select the default fonts, colors, etc. Built into GNOME are themes for people with visual impairments who might need themes such as high contrast and large print.
  4. Assistive technologies. When the base platform support above is not enough, assistive technologies provide additional means for interacting with

the desktop. These include:

  • GOK - the GNOME Onscreen Keyboard. GOK provides people with the ability to interact with the desktop via devices such as switches (e.g., a user can

make some movement to open/close a switch) and/or pointer manipulation devices (e.g., the user has hardware to allow them to turn head movements into mouse pointer movements on the screen).

  • Dasher - Dasher is a predictive text entry tool for people who have pointer manipulation devices. With Dasher, we find that people are able to enter text at speeds much higher rates than they otherwise would be able to.
  • Orca - Orca is a screen reader for people with visual impairments. Through customizable combinations of speech, braille, and magnification, users can access the desktop through non-visual means.
  • MouseTweaks - MouseTweaks is new for GNOME 2.22 and is for people who have pointer manipulation devices. The main application provides dwell-clicking (i.e., you hover the pointer over something for a period of time) which simulates different mouse clicks without using physical buttons and a delay-click feature which opens context menus by holding the left mouse button for a specified amount of time.

There are definitely areas for improvement, such as better support for learning disabilities. The Orca team is currently investigating features to incorporate into Orca to help with this. These features include highlighting text as it is being spoken, providing the ability to speak the word under the pointer, allowing the speech output to be customized more for the visual user, etc.

Photos: (credit: Willie Walker)

willie_walker.jpg - 2304px × 3456px (Big!)

willie_walker_2.jpg - 800px × 600px (Not as good a photo)

FoundationBoard/AnnualReport2008/WalkerInterview (last edited 2008-10-31 10:55:19 by DaveNeary)