Behind the Scenes with Joanmarie Diggs

Paul Cutler continues GNOME Journal’s Behind the Scenes series, interviewing Joanmarie Diggs. Joanmarie talks about her work on GNOME accessibility, her motivations and some of her favorite things.

Short Intro

  • Age: Old enough to have grown up with rotary phones, to have typed papers and filled out forms via typewriter, and to remember when a college education cost less than a house. We are approaching the second anniversary of my 39th birthday. Oh, alright, I’ll be 40 in November. 🙂
  • Located in: Nashua, New Hampshire, USA
  • Profession: Assistive Technology Specialist and Curriculum Developer (boils down to: I’m a teacher working with individuals who are blind or visually impaired.)
  • Nickname on IRC: Joanie (both gnome and freenode)
  • Homepage and blog: ‘’:, but like many folks, I stopped blogging and started microblogging. I’m “joanmarie” on most networks and primarily use Twitter.


In what ways do you contribute to GNOME?

I’ve been contributing to Orca for a little over four years, most of that time as one of the developers. Since the end of March 2010, I’ve been the Orca maintainer. I’ve also dabbled a bit in WebKitGtk accessibility.

How and when did you get involved in GNOME?

‘Twas early 2006, courtesy of Massachusetts threatening to make ODF the official file format of the Commonwealth. In the ensuing brouhaha, a number of companies came to visit the agency for which I work (The Carroll Center for the Blind), one being Sun Microsystems. Peter Korn and Willie Walker did some demos, including Orca. And for the first time I saw something I had wanted for the bulk of the previous decade, namely a screen reader that didn’t cost $1200 and which users (and teachers) could truly make their own by providing input and contributing code. At the time, my non-work systems were running Kubuntu, so it was just a matter of crossing over to GNOME and getting up to speed on Orca and how things worked in the GNOME community.

What motivates/keeps you motivated to work on GNOME?

  • The original motivator has not changed: Seeing people taking charge of their destiny by shaping the tools they want and need to achieve their goals is extremely cool.
  • The people: I’ve met and worked with a bunch of incredible people, both users and developers, whom I wouldn’t have otherwise had the privilege to meet, let alone have in my life.
  • The challenge: Some people climb mountains; I help develop a screen reader. The latter seems to be a better fit with my lousy balance, not to mention my fear of heights, bugs (of the creepy-crawly, multi-legged variety), and large woodland creatures with sharp teeth and/or claws. 🙂 But all joking aside, I do enjoy a good challenge and learning new things. Working on Orca provides me with both.
  • The personal commitment I’ve made: To the users, to the GNOME community, to my fellow developers.

How much time do you usually spend on GNOME?

These days, it’s pretty much a full-time (volunteer) job. I re-arranged my DayJob schedule so that I work (insanely long days) midweek. That frees up Friday, Monday, and the weekend to focus on GNOME.

What do you think is still badly missing in GNOME?

  • Sufficient funding and contributors to ensure that GNOME is compellingly accessible. With respect to Orca itself, my new teammate Alejandro Leiva introduced me to the concept of “bus factor” yesterday. Alas, he does have a very valid point, one whose applicability extends beyond Orca to all things GNOME accessibility.
  • Other and improved Assistive Technologies: Solutions for users with learning disabilities; voice recognition, both for people who cannot use a keyboard and people who would prefer not to; continued development of OCR solutions, a braille translator, etc., etc.
  • Women, especially developers and module maintainers.
  • Market share.
  • Bling (hopefully the GNOME Shell team is providing that).
  • Eye-poppingly awesome games.

Which book is on your bedside table?

At the moment, there are a couple—both of which I am about half-way through (and put on hold due to too much Orca work to do. See the ‘bus factor’ reference above):

  • Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”
  • Michio Kaku’s “Hyperspace”

Who or what in your life would you say influenced you most?

I wouldn’t say. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. Life is a journey. I am who I am and where I am because of the myriad of people whose paths intersected my own, and the nearly four decades(!!) of experiences I’ve had. To single out one person or one thing would at best be an inaccurate representation; at worst, it would be unfair to many wonderful people.

How would you describe yourself?

I’ve been called “endearingly neurotic.” Though, admittedly, some days I’m more endearing than others. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say “mostly harmless.”

What do you get passionate about?

Aside from Orca and accessibility, you mean? 🙂

Any hobbies outside of GNOME?

And I’d schedule those in when, pray tell? 🙂

In a previous lifetime, I spent a lot of time cooking (vegetarian) and baking. And reading. I also used to find it amusing to attempt home repair. I’m admittedly a bit of a homebody….

But all of that said, to this very day, I can always find time (sometimes hour-long chunks) to peruse the OED. I own the 20-volume set and simply love etymology. I’ve just crossed the line from geek to nerd, haven’t I??

If someone visits your country, which spot is a must-see?

Niagara Falls


What’s your favorite:


Eccentric/quirky + brilliant + hilariously funny


“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”


“Monty Python and the Holy Grail”


Toss up between Indian and Thai


Outside: Northern New England, especially in the fall and winter.

Inside: LL Bean’s Freeport Flagship Store at 3 AM. Yes it is open then, and yes, it is quite surreal to be the only shopper in an enormous campus of stores.

Text editor?



That’s a hard one. But if forced to pick one…. Rusted Root.


According to, “Numb” by U2. But Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” (the live version) might really be my favorite.

Discuss this story with other readers on the GNOME forums.


Posted on September 1, 2010, in September 2010. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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