When it comes to accessibility, I live in a world of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, based both in objective measures and in my own use cases, I am compelled to admit that, as of this writing, Apple, especially on iOS, is the “best” provider of out-of-the-box accessibility. At the same time, as I wrote in an article last autumn called “Apple, The Company I Hate To Love, Part 1: My Long History Fighting Apple,” one can see that I have taken concrete action involving them and their pathological approach to intellectual property law. As an accessibility advocate, Apple makes me very happy; as an advocate on issues of intellectual freedoms, Apple is one of the worst in the business. Personally, I place a higher value on universal accessibility than I do on software related freedoms so feel comfortable crowning Apple “champion” as, today, on accessibility, they are number one.
But each time I say something nice about Apple regarding accessibility, I feel a bit of mental angst as, by endorsing Apple on accessibility, I’m also endorsing them as a company where their track record ranges from poor to middling. This year, as I wrote in “Anarchy, Leadership and NVDA,” we are witnessing a surge in successful free and no cost (FLOSS) software projects, mostly coming from little teams who see a problem and take action to solve the problem. NVDA has been at the core of these developments, until very recently.
Deque Systems is not a small player, in fact, with roughly 100 employees, Deque is probably the single largest accessibility contract business on Earth. While Deque gives an annual contribution to the NVAccess Foundation (makers of NVDA), their free software announcement is unrelated to my favorite Windows screen reader.
What Did Deque Release?
In preparation for this article, I spent a half hour on the phone with Preety Kumar, who, in addition to being the lead person at Deque Systems, has also been a friend of mine going back to the days when Deque was a tiny operation running mostly out of Preety’s house and I was VP/Software Engineering at Freedom Scientific. After speaking with Preety, I went to the Deque web site and read whatever I could find about this important development.
Deque Systems has released its Axe automated testing engine as a free and open source module that others can use as a stand alone testing tool or build into their web apps, CMS or other open source technologies. Deque released Axe using the Mozilla Public License (MPL) which is compatible with both tremendously permissive FLOSS licenses like MIT and BSD while also maintaining compatibility with GPL and other CopyLeft ones as well. “We chose the license to ensure compatibility with as many other open source tools as possible,” said Preety Kumar during our conversation.
It’s About The Rules
I asked Preety why Deque made this historical decision and, somewhat cynically, suggested that they may have been feeling heat from Karl Groves’ and his Tenon no cost testing tool or any of the myriad other web testing tools now on the market. I don’t mean to single out Karl here but, rather, I’m using him and his automated test tool as an example because it’s incredibly highly rated and is often recommended as a no cost way to get aspects of a web site tested for accessibility that are compatible with an automated process. Thus, I include Karl only because his software is an example of the very best available today. If one googles on “automated web accessibility test tool,” they’ll be presented with literally dozens of results, some to excellent tools from top accessibility companies while also finding a lot of items from companies that do not seem to participate in the discussion on accessibility and may be fly by night operations.
Preety’s response, “Competition is always an issue and we intend to continue competing in the tools arena but our true motivation was to try to find a way that accessibility testing tools could all be working with the same set of rules,” was an impressive answer.
“The problem,” continued Preety, “is that a web developer today might try two or three different testing tools and get three different sets of results. This developer may then conclude that accessibility is such an immature industry that we can’t even get our standards, guidelines, best practices and so on harmonized well enough to provide a consistent set of test results.”
With this development from Deque, anyone with the skills to read code can take a look at the rules that the tool is following and, unlike the closed source, proprietary competitor products, be able to understand precisely what is a real result from the tool and what might be a bug in the tool itself. All software I use has some bugs so we can assume that all web testing tools have such too. If, at the very least, we can harmonize on the rules used to test web sites for accessibility, we’ll have taken a step forward both in helping web developers make their sites accessible but, also, we’d be making our entire industry appear to play from the same sheet of music.
The Future For Axe
Preety added, “At this point, we really don’t know what to expect.” Which also describes my opinion of the future of this technology. Will the others follow suit and open up their tools as well? I certainly hope so.
In the time since Deque announced that it was releasing it’s accessibility testing tool as open source, our friends at WordPress Foundation have started discussing integrating Axe into its core testing facility. If this happens, WordPress will be the first of the popular CMS (Drupal and Joomla being the other two) to include accessibility test results in its standard report to all WordPress users. Obviously, WP users can choose to ignore these test results but, simply by having them present, some users may follow the accessibility rules who might not have done so otherwise. I don’t know if this is actually going to happen, the WPF people need to talk to the Deque people and, while I was able to make the introduction between a friend on the WPF accessibility team and Deque itself, I can’t speak for either group but they are talking to each other already about tis exciting possibility.
Free, libre open source software (FLOSS) is the only way we, as consumers of accessible technology, can take full control of our destinies. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how happy the Deque decision makes me and how much I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a trend. NVDA Remote Access demonstrated that, indeed, programmers can make a fair level of compensation for working on a GPL 2 based NVDA plug-in; Deque is demonstrating that releasing its software under a FLOSS license will both help its consulting business while also giving the entire community a system on which we can participate in building a truly terrific automated accessibility test platform.
Please do, if you make software for people with disabilities, consider opening up your code as well. By doing so, you will be benefiting both the community of access technology users but all of those who want to ensure compatibility with your software and for those with the skills to make it better.