Grain of Salt

because it is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes

The First (Annual?) GNOME Accessibility Hackfest

Sponsored by the GNOME Foundation

Last week, thanks to a generous travel sponsorship from the GNOME Foundation, I attended the 25th annual CSUN Conference — or more accurately, I attended the 1st (annual?) GNOME Accessibility Hackfest which took place at the conference.

You can’t always get what you want…

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I expected to get out of this hackfest. Sure, it would be a great opportunity to work face-to-face with other accessibility developers and spread the word about GNOME to the attendees of the conference. But I’d be lying were I to deny hope that Will Walker would show up, much like Bobby from the 80’s television show Dallas, to inform us that recent events had all just been a bad dream. Or, failing that, that one of the companies which ships the GNOME desktop would see the hackfest as the opportune time to announce the creation (restoration) of a full-time engineering position whose primary focus would be Orca development. Or, also failing that, I would not have objected to a visit from the Good Fairy.

Mind you, I’m not greedy. At this point I have no expectations of having (what I feel to be) an appropriate number of engineers devoted to GNOME accessibility development. All I wanted was something, anything, which would put things back to where they were before so that I could happily continue in my role of humble Orca worker bee. Alas, no such luck. As a result, I am now officially the Orca project lead/maintainer.

What exactly will happen with respect to the broader GNOME accessibility picture remains to be seen. Will went over the large list of issues facing us for GNOME 3.0. A few items (CSPI and GOK, for instance) got slated for deprecation, and many of us at the hackfest volunteered to take on what remained. But I was really hoping we’d also walk away from the hackfest with a new leader: someone who could see both the forest and its trees, serve as the GNOME community’s “point person” for accessibility issues, and herd us cats accessibility developers into a cohesive, focused group. In other words, another Will Walker. But that hope was dashed along with my other hopes when no one stepped up to try to fill Will’s shoes. I still truly believe that we’ll find our way, and that in the end it’ll all be good; at the moment, however, I’m just not sure how that will come to pass.

…But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.

As I keep reminding myself, I must focus on what I can do; not on what I cannot. What I can do is continue to work on Orca, and things are starting to look up on that front:

Growing the team

While Oracle has yet to officially acknowledge my Open Letter, it seems they are doing the more important thing, namely starting to respond to the concerns raised therein: They sent Li Yuan and Ke Wang, two engineers from Oracle/Sun Beijing, to the hackfest. Will led a session in which the four of us went over Orca’s internals with the aim of getting Li and Ke sufficiently up to speed to contribute to Orca. It is my understanding that Li will be able to add a bit of time for Orca to the accessibility work he is already doing, and that Ke will be able to spend 50% of his time working on accessibility, including Orca. Phew! Thanks guys for joining the team. And thank you Oracle for continuing to support this project.

Alejandro Piñeiro of Igalia also attended the hackfest. Alejandro has been working on Cally (accessibility support for Clutter) and is now taking a look at getting Orca working with gnome-shell. Thank goodness! An inaccessible gnome-shell would be a major setback for GNOME accessibility, but I had no idea how I was supposed to fit that issue on my own to-do list. It was great to have the opportunity to continue the discussions about Orca he and I had at the Boston Summit last October. And while it, too, remains to be seen, I’m hopeful that Alejandro (and/or another developer from Igalia) will be able to join the Orca team to address some of the other issues we’re facing. Regardless, thank you Alejandro for all your work. And thanks to Igalia for its ongoing support of GNOME accessibility.


Going from being a one-(wo)man team to being a member of a potentially four-person team is itself a great outcome for this hackfest, but I also had the good fortune to spend some quality time with Mozilla’s accessibility guys, Marco Zehe, David Bolter, and Alexander Surkov. We talked quite a bit about testing and now have a plan for both sides to better detect and prevent regressions. This should go a long way in ensuring that GNOME users who are blind continue to have compelling access to Firefox.

I also had a chance to talk with Mike Gorse and clarify some aspects of the Orca regression test suite so that he can use our tests as a means to ensure that the work he is doing with AT-SPI over DBus behaves as expected.

That the ÆGIS Project is going to be working with the community to start tackling the broader issue of accessibility testing in GNOME was yet another piece of welcome news. After all, time that does not need to be spent on hunting down accessibility regressions in other applications is time that can be spent on making Orca even better.

Going forward

Will and I went over what I need to do to make a release. (You’re right, it is a piece of cake. But thanks for going over it with me! One less thing for me to stress over…. 🙂 )

Last, but not least, I am extremely touched by the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar which was presented to me by Peter Korn and the rest of the GNOME a11y guys for my work on Orca. It was neither expected nor necessary, but with everything going on these days it was very (very, very) much appreciated and lifted my spirits considerably regarding the future. You guys are the best!!

So all in all I’d say it was well worth getting over my dislike of travel (not to mention my complete and utter fear of flying) to attend this event. 🙂 Many, many thanks to Eitan for taking on the mammoth task of organizing all of it — and us! And thanks again to the GNOME Foundation for making it possible for me to attend.

Now for the hard part: Getting everything we’ve set out to do done….