So this whole thing started for me back in 2000. It began as a one way trip from Chicago to Netscape’s Mountain View offices, traveling through small towns and past the Grand Canyon, up through California and finally into the fog of the bay area. This was to be the last major trip for my mini-Cadillac (a 1986 Chrysler New Yorker).
Netscape barely knew what accessibility was. But they gave me an apartment to live in, and an office. I was working for a Braille note-taker manufacturer who needed web browsing capability. My coding skills were all home grown, in straight C and not in C++. I had never touched something as immense as the Mozilla codebase, and still had not grasped the true power of dynamic content. But what I did have was passion and the belief that open source was a beautiful place — and the best place to implement accessibility the right way.
Eventually Netscape hired me to integrate accessibility into the core product. There was a lot to do — not just to make Mozilla communicate XUL and HTML content and events to screen readers via MSAA, but also to add full keyboard support. I also added some special features for all users, like caret browsing and type ahead find (later enhanced by Blake Ross to become the find bar).
Then in July of 2003, Black Tuesday arrived. The Netscape browser team was laid off. I’d like to thank Asa Dotzler and others for their optimism very early on, even before this. Asa knew that Mozilla needed to be free to develop its own vision, Firefox. The truly passionate found a way to continue working on Mozilla. A year after I was laid off, IBM hired me finish the accessibility work. Yay!
All in all, I got married, had two children, went through three jobs, lived in three cities and fixed over 1000 bugs since it all started …. and we have a very accessible Firefox. Mozilla has a major role in leading the charge for accessibility of Web 2.0, not to mention accessibility on the Windows and Linux desktop.
These days, Marco Zehe, Alex Surkov and David Bolter have taken over the core accessibility work. These are the right guys to bring the quality and polish we need. It’s not all boring; there are also new features to implement. In 2009 we hope to become accessible with VoiceOver on OS X, continue to improve our support for WAI-ARIA and Web 2.0 accessibility, and address advanced topics such as accessible math, diagrams and custom widgets. It’s a bit unfortunate that these are still considered advanced topics in accessibility, when they are so basic to the mainstream. However, when Mozilla addresses new accessibility topics, it tends to pave the road with standards and documentation. This makes things much easier for implementers that come after us.
Although I’m no longer coding I work as hard as ever. I still advise in the codebase and act as module owner. I want to help make sure that decisions of the past are understood by anyone working in the code. Documentation is helpful but ultimately not enough.
What am I working on now?
- Finding talented individuals and cowriting grant proposals for worthwhile accessibility projects that benefit the web. One example is Silvia Pfeiffer‘s project to add captioning and audio descriptions for HTML 5 video and audio. I’m also working with Eitan Isaacson, a great programmer who helps us in too many ways to count. He developed Speclenium, a tool to allow the accessibility implementations in two browsers to be compared for differences. I plan to use it to help other browsers improve their support for WAI-ARIA.
- Enabling projects to add basic accessibility testing into Firebug and develop a Firebug extension for more advanced accessibility testing. This will bring awareness of accessibility issues to a wider authoring community, finally bring the test tool development community together on a common strategy, and allow us to address Web 2.0 accessibility testing.
- Advancing the accessibility of math, diagrams and custom widgets.
- Participating in efforts such as AIA, to create a cross-platform accessibility API. Today, developing accessibility for native cross-platform applications is a nightmare because each platform has a different solution. It’s best for the web if the entire industry works together on common accessibility solutions — Mozilla, IE, Opera and WebKit.
I’m very lucky to work with the community that has developed around Mozilla accessibility. I think we follow the model of the Mozilla project as a whole, enabling each other to do great things. This is a good opportunity to thank IBM and Mozilla, and in particular Frank Hecker, for the opportunity to work as more of a leader and organizer. It’s a less direct approach than just writing the code yourself, but when the timing is right it’s the right role to take on. You’ll produce far greater results.