Linux accessibility – what is it and why does it matter

A note to readers. This article focuses on accessibility from the standpoint of a blind user. There are other assistive technologies available for users with other disabilities in the Linux world, but due to my lack of experience with these technologies I do not feel comfortable writing about them. I offer a sincere apology for this.  We live in a society today that is laden with many different terms which have multiple meanings, and sometimes one simply looks at a specific term but not its underlying definition. One of the terms which we will look at today is that of “accessibility”, not to be confused with “usability”. Although both of these terms often go  hand-in-hand, they are two separate areas when it comes to technology.  Before we get into this mysterious word, “accessibility”, let me first introduce myself. My name is Robert Cole. I have been a Linux user now for nearly seven years, five years of which I have been an exclusive user of this excellent and open platform. So, what makes me any more “different” than other users? Well, I am not trying to be boastful of the fact, but I am a blind user. For the record, however, I am not totally blind, but I am pretty close. I suffer from an eye disorder known as microphthalmia, which basically means “small eyes”. I have no sight in my left eye, and a very small amount (literally 20/2000) in my right eye. And yes, I love using Linux.

I will not completely go into detail about why I use Linux. Suffice it to say that if you are a blind Windows user, you are, for the most part, a target of big name companies who make extremely pricey software products (namely screen readers and screen magnifiers as well as other technologies) which allow you the “privilege” of using your computer system. You literally would have to pay for two or more additional computer systems just to be able to use the one you already have, not including the upgrade costs for said software. Not very nice, is it? But that’s life if you are blind and you are “into” computers. Well, it used to be for me.

What is this “accessibility”?

I am certain that those of you who are reading this have seen the term “accessibility” thrown around somewhere. Maybe you happened to stumble across an article like this and you wondered, what exactly is going on here? I will for the record, being blind myself, say that I do not agree with everything which these “accessibility advocates” say and do. However, I do feel that accessibility in this day and age is very possible and very important.

“Accessibility” basically means “to provide access”. In the case of technologies such as computers and operating systems, it means to provide access to as many different types of users — blind, deaf, physically disabled, etc — as possible either through hardware modifications or through software which assists these users to use their systems – called “assistive technologies”.

Accessibility in Linux

I stopped using Windows because I could no longer afford to use it. At the time when I completely switched to Linux (approximately June of 2007) the price for a popular screen magnifier was US$600 to US$700, not including the price of upgrades to new versions when they were made available. Even to this day, the price for a standard version of a very popular screen reader among blind users starts at US$895. Oh, the software does its job, but you have to go into debt to use your computer. That’s tough if you are a student or if you need your computer for work related activities. Believe me, I’ve been there.

In 2007 I realized that the Compiz Enhanced Zoom Desktop (or simply Ezoom) plugin did everything I needed a screen magnifier to do – it did it well, and it did it for free! I was sold on Linux from that point on.

Compiz’s eZoom is not the only screen magnifier available, however. If you run KDE along with its KWin window manager, there is a Zoom feature built right in, as well as other accessibility related features (for info on KDE Accessibility, visit the KDE Accessibility project page). Though it has been controversial in the eyes of many, GNOME 3 is loaded with plenty of accessibility features for disabled users (see the GNOME Accessibility page). GNOME Shell uses its own window manager, named “mutter,” which, like KDE, has its own Zoom feature.

No sight? No problem! Really!

My good eye gets tired quite easily nowadays. I honestly believe that what little vision I have may not last as long as I will. Years ago this could have been a problem, but not now. GNOME has a screen reader named Orca which is in active development and is maintained by Joanmarie (Joanie) Diggs. Joanie is one busy developer, but she always is there to listen to the concerns of Orca users. Unlike the big name commercial assistive technology companies, Joanie (as well as many other developers of open source assistive technologies) has a true and sincere desire to present to disabled users a free and open system which they can use, regardless of their disability. If you don’t believe me, just go on over and read through the countless threads in the Orca mailing list archives. One of the big reasons why I switched to Linux, beside all of the great free and open source technologies available, is that the Linux community cares. Developers like Joanie and many others are not out to empty your wallet and put you in debt for a lifetime, but rather they are there to help folks with disabilities find freedom so that they can literally own their systems and the technologies which are on them. 

Just because you use Orca does not mean you have to use GNOME! Joanie and others are working diligently together to make other desktop environments (including Unity, KDE, Xfce, and LXDE) accessible via Orca as well. I know that there are many disputes about which desktop is the greatest, but behind the scenes (at least as far as accessibility is concerned) the groups behind these different environments are working together so that those who are disabled can use whichever environment they prefer, just as everyone else does.

No GUI? No problem!

If you like to strictly use the command line (as in no GUI whatsoever), but if you are no longer able to see your screen, no worries. There’s a screen reader for that. Take a look at Speakup. While I personally feel that Orca and Speakup do a wonderful job, there are other Linux screen readers available such as Emacspeak and YASR.   Ever installed a system with your eyes closed, literally?  As many of you reading this know, Ubuntu 12.04 was released not too long ago. I actually had the joy of installing it with my eyes closed, literally. Don’t believe me? When you boot up an Ubuntu live CD or USB drive, press CTRL+S when you hear a drum sound. This will start the Orca screen reader, and you can either try Ubuntu using Orca or install Ubuntu with your eyes closed; it’s entirely your choice. I was able to do a complete installation (including partitioning my drives) without having to look at my screen!

This is one area in Linux accessibility, however, that does need some work. I am referring to accessible installers. As of right now, at least to my knowledge, one can completely install Debian (see the Debian accessibility page), Ubuntu, Vinux (an Ubuntu derivative designed for blind and visually impaired users), Trisquel and Arch Linux (via Chris Brannon’s TalkingArch ISO image). There may be other distributions which have fully accessible installers, but I do not know of them personally. I have worked with other distributions such as openSUSE and Fedora, and I think that they have a lot to offer, but they are not fully installable by a blind user at this time. However, according to a response from Joanie to an Orca Mailing List thread which I was involved in, a fully accessible Fedora installer is in the works.


Although much more could be to be said about Linux accessibility, I believe that I have covered a good amount of ground in this article. Linux accessibility is very important. I want to present to you a scenario to demonstrate just how important accessibility is, not just in Linux but in other technologies as well:

Imagine that you are locked in a cage. You are only allowed to ask for certain things and you only receive what the key holder wants you to have. And, for the most part, what you are given is given at your expense, and the price is steep. You are locked up and going in debt, and even if you do not like what you are given you are simply stuck with it.

This is what life is like for many disabled computer users. They have to rely on technologies which are produced by commercial companies in order to utilize already existing technology. They do not have too much say in the product, but they are required to pay an extremely high price for it, even though their disability is not their own fault. They literally go into debt so that they can use something which they already own. In my opinion, this is very unfair.

This is why open source is important to me. Even if you use Windows, you can get a free and open source screen reader called NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA). How is all of this possible? Because there are people out there who see a cause and fight for it. There are people out there who feel that everyone should have access to technology, and that they should not have to worry about how they will ever be able to afford it.

With this article having Linux as its primary focus, I want to end this by pleading with distribution maintainers and developers. Please, try to make your distribution accessible. Please fight for the cause. Not everyone will want to be an Ubuntu, Arch, or Debian user. Make your distribution count even more than it already does. Help in the fight to free those locked in the cage of commercial technologies so that they can find freedom.

Is Linux accessibility important to me? You’d better believe it is!

Thank you for reading!

* * * * *

About the author: Robert Cole holds an Associate degree in Computer Information Systems from Modesto Junior College. He lives in Modesto, USA, with his wife Gloria and two sons, R.J. and Adam.  Go Up

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