Free software has tended to serve the leading edge of the computing community - hackers, etc. - first. General users have tended to follow later, and those with access problems after that. That allowed Microsoft to use the relatively poor support for these communities as a stick with which to beat ODF during the early stages of the ODf vs. OOXML battle in Massachusetts. Things have moved on, but it remains true that free software's support for all users, including those with disabilities, has lagged somewhat behind proprietary offerings.
Against that background, the EU's Aegis project could provide an important fillip:
The ÆGIS project seeks to determine whether 3rd generation access techniques will provide a more accessible, more exploitable and deeply embeddable approach in mainstream ICT (desktop, rich Internet and mobile applications). This approach is developed and explored with the Open Accessibility Framework (OAF) through which aspects of the design, development and deployment of accessible mainstream ICT are addressed. The OAF provides embedded and built-in accessibility solutions, as well as toolkits for developers, for “engraving” accessibility in existing and emerging mass-market ICT-based products, thus making accessibility open, plug & play, personalised & configurable, realistic & applicable in various contexts; ÆGIS is placing users and their needs at the centre of all ICT developments. Based on a holistic UCD, ÆGIS identifies user needs and interaction models for several user groups, (users with visual, hearing, motion, speech and cognitive impairments as well as application developers) and develops open source-based generalised accessibility support into mainstream ICT devices/applications
Sun Microsystems, Inc. today announced it is leading global efforts in solving accessibility challenges for all devices from cell phones to desktops and Web applications by leading a consortium of over 20 other companies and organizations. The consortium will help define new approaches and solutions for building accessibility support into future information and communication technologies. Funded by a grant awarded by the European Commission,the AEGIS Project is based on the Sun-led proposal and technical architecture. A key component of the AEGIS Project is that it will leverage open source technologies wherever possible.
The AEGIS Project will involve research and prototypes that address a broad range of disabilities including: vision impairment, hearing impairment, physical impairment, and a range of cognitive/developmental disabilities. The participants plan to address accessibility challenges across three key areas: open source desktop computing, Rich Internet Applications (RIA) and mobile devices; with a multitude of research and development goals within each of these areas. In addressing these challenges, the AEGIS Project will leverage the pervasiveness of Java technology across desktops, the web, and mobile devices.
Although I don't imagine much will be coming out of this project for a while, it's good to know that major work is going on in this area. The combination of the EU, which is increasingly putting its weight behind free software solutions, and Sun, a long-established company that has, to its credit, embraced open source more than most, is particularly promising.