My Thoughts on Accessible Distros

13 November, 2020
6 min read

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.

Accessibility during 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 platform.

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, be accessible.

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 setback

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 structured.

So, the installation often involves

  1. Installing the system as root. This means creating a password and setting up initial permissions that let you do the next steps. Then
  2. 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.

Conclusion

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!