Following the recent release of Arch Linux and its support for
accessibility during setup, it looks promising for blind and
visually impaired users, particularly those switching from Windows.
Yet for anyone trying to make a switch, there are certain expectation
he or she holds regarding the Linux platform—especially setting it
up for the first time on one’s own.
installation was first provided in full by Mac Os X, followed by
Windows. These platforms have also set some standards when it comes to
a user interface that is both friendly and accessible.
I think when it comes to usability and accessibility of Linux
applications, most of them indeed are accessible. This is true when
one looks at console-based programs.
The issue we are discussing in this post has to do with accessibility
during installation, and the first impressions for a blind user.
The Vinux Project and its Heritage
I remember some time ago, there was a distro that was specifically
designed for blind and visually impaired users, namely Vinux. I once
played along with the system, and was impressed by its ease of use
from the time of installation to the time I could use it.
The problem at the time was, I was still heavily steeped in GUI
thinking, and never explored beyond the desktop file manager. So every
time I used, I was somehow making comparisons with how similar actions
could be accomplished on Windows.
Thus, when I thought of accessibility, I was thinking of Windows
accessibility as far as it stacked against that of the Linux platform.
In hindsight, this was not a healthy outlook on my part: it did not
help me quickly adjust to the Linux world. Things are done differently
on Linux from Windows, and for a good reason.
But this could be explained by how, for the past twenty years or so,
the desktop environments developed for Linux were modelled along that
of Windows. The idea was to appeal to Windows users for them to switch
to Linux and to remove its tag as a heavily text-based platform.
So to put Vinux in context: it was simply an ambitious project aimed
at putting together an accessible platform, based on Ubuntu. In that
respect, it won a number of people, including myself, to the Linux
Once you could be used to it, it was relatively easy to switch to
other distros, and not requiring a hand-holding experience to navigate
the Unix world.
But do we still need a dedicated distro like Vinux?
Yes, and no. To the extent that Vinux could let you install your
operating system on your own, it gave one confidence as it was a
matter of prompt-and-click operations:
- Choosing your language and region;
- Partitioning the disk;
- Choosing the default apps; and
- setting up your username and password.
Vinux was based on a customised Ubuntu distribution, as a result
working on it was just working on a Ubuntu platform. So any time you
had to switch to the mainstream Ubuntu or Debian, you would have been
used to its interface.
On the other hand, it gave an impression that accessibility was not
mainstreamed into other distros. So making a switch to Linux would
make one hesitant to try other distros, other than Vinux–or Ubuntu.
So the answer is: Vinux was necessary in raising awareness of the need
to include accessibility as a builtin product of the distros.
Vinux also underscored an important aspect of Linux distributions in
general: they are put together to appeal to particular niches. This
goal of distros is what perhaps makes Linux have vocal fans in its
ranks: their distros address their computing needs in a way no other
platform can do.
So Vinux was aimed at blind users, and not necessarily those
switching from Windows. The collection of programs, the choice of its
desktop and browsers all were testament to this fact. This probably
explains the successful spawns of Vinux through Slint (based on
Slackware) and formerly Talking Archie (Now part of the Arch Linux).
At what point should accessibility be provided?
During installation, it is essential that a blind user be able to
initiate the setup process on her or his own. During use, it is
important that the interface, whether it is graphical or console,
Besides Braille and speech feedback, the installer has to come
with a wizard that guides a new user on setting the system up.
For example, it may not be obvious that a root user is different
from the ordinary user with administrative rights.
Ubuntu often hides this fact when installing it, to the extent
that the password one uses for their user account may be the same
as the root account.
The State of Accessibility these Days
These days, accessibility on the desktop is wholly provided by
the Orca Screen-reader which is part of the Gnome ecosystem. This
means that accessibility is no longer the domain of a single
distro, but wherever Gnome can run, so can Orca.
On the other hand, if you are a console user, you have to use other
screen-readers that are optimised for the terminal. Orca cannot run
on the Console, so you have to use eitherSpeakup or Fenrir. The
former had been around even before Orca, such that it is possible
to have Speakup run from the time you boot up your computer to
the time you are authenticated, if it is built into the Linux kernel.
Advantages to these specialised distros
The main advantage has to do with maintainers of those
distributions: they choose applications that are accessible,
whether they are for the desktop or console.
Also, the installers are detailed and accessible.
The only setback I came across is that for someone new to the
Linux world, especially moving from Windows, there are some
assumptions made. For instance, whereas installing a mainstream
Debian or Ubuntu distro is just a matter of clicking and
following the wizard (a custom from Windows software
installation), with the installation of Arch Linux and Slint, you
must have some understanding of how the Linux filesystem is
So, the installation often involves
- Installing the system as root. This means creating a password
and setting up initial permissions that let you do the next
- Then as root, you have to log in and add your first user
(yourself) before you can use it. All this is done from the
console and not through a wizard.
While the process is straightforward for seasoned Linux users,
for someone just making a switch it may be confusing when
compared to other platforms.
These were my rantings on Linux accessibility. Linux as a platform
is, in my opinion, very solid and easy to work with once the minor
hurdles of installing it are passed.
In a future post, I will be reflecting on the expectations of
someone who is just starting to use the Linux desktop from
Windows. Until then, have a good day and thanks for reading!