GNU Accessibility Statement

The GNU Project urges people working on free software to follow standards and guidelines for universal accessibility on GNU/Linux and other free operating systems. Multi-platform projects should use the cross platform accessibility interfaces available that include GNU/Linux distributions and the GNOME desktop. The GNU Project also advises developers of web sites to follow the guidelines set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative.

According to the United Nations, in 2005 there were 600 million people with disabilities in the world. Moreover, their World report on disability shows that in 2011 this number had increased to one billion. To use computers, many of these people need special software known as “access technology.” Like other programs, these can be free software or proprietary. Those which are free software respect the freedom of their users; the rest, proprietary programs, subject those users to the power of the program's owner. Programs for accessibility ethically must be free software, like other programs.

In order for access technology to work, the other software in use must interoperate with it. The majority of computer programs and web sites (85% in one estimate) do not comply with accessibility standards and guidelines, so they do not work with access technology. They provide a frustrating experience, and can bar users from job or school activities.

Proprietary file formats that require proprietary reading programs are poison to both accessibility and to the freedoms that we as free software activists hope to establish. The biggest offender is Flash format; it usually requires proprietary software that doesn't cooperate with accessibility. Microsoft Silverlight is similar. PDF is also difficult; though there is free software to view it, it does not support free access technology software. Improving this is an important project.

People with disabilities deserve to have control of their own technological destinies. When they use proprietary access technology, they have little or no way to correct whatever is wrong with it. Virtually all major decisions of the proprietary developers are made by people who do not have the disability; 20 years' experience shows that people with unusual combinations of disabilities, who require relatively unusual software, or who encounter a bug that keeps them from doing their job have no way to obtain the changes they need. These products are only changed or improved when the vendors see a business reason for doing the work; this leaves many users behind. As a secondary problem, proprietary access software is far more expensive than a PC. Many users cannot afford to give up their freedom in this way.

For users with disabilities, as for all other users, free software is the only way the users can control their own computing, their only chance to make software fit their needs rather than passively accepting whatever developers choose to offer them.

Nations with large populations also have large numbers of people with disabilities. Countries including Brazil and Russia are discussing whether to standardize government purchases on GNU/Linux platforms. These nations are all signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and include technology in their agenda for providing such rights. This will require them to hire programmers to work on accessibility software for their populations. If it is free software, the rest of the world will be able to use it too. The hackers who work on free access technology will provide tools that people with disabilities can use to expand their horizons enormously.

Making a program accessible is no substitute for making it respect users' freedom—these are separate issues—but the two fit naturally together.


  • Application software developers should learn how to use the accessibility features of the IDE or toolkit they employ to build their user interface.
  • Programmers who need to implement access technology, or work on a desktop or OS-level accessibility problem, will need to understand the appropriate accessibility API, and should choose the one that is compatible with free OS/desktops. These include the GNOME accessibility API (GNU/Linux platforms only), the Java accessibility API (GNU/Linux and Windows) and iAccessible2 (GNU/Linux and Windows).
  • Web developers should follow the W3C web accessibility guidelines and, for complex web applications, the developers should follow the ARIA standard.
  • Outside of the web, developers should follow the relevant W3C accessibility guidelines.
  • Other resources on and off the web could also be checked.
  • People at or near MIT could check with MIT's Disability and Access Services in person.
  • People who have access to similar centers at other schools, organizations, and companies could check with them.
  • Feedback from disabled users can be obtained by contacting the GNU accessibility mailing list.

Remember GNU Principles

Reminder: Always follow these two principles to respect users' freedom.