Discovering Linux Accessibility

Background

Windows is a great operating system, one that most of us are introduced to when we begin our brush with the computer world. In fact, the success of Windows has even defined a number of some standards using Microsoft guidelines.

Nowhere is this true than in accessibility world:

  • We all understand screen-readers through Windows' JAWS for Windows or NVDA.

  • We get to understand word-processing from a Microsoft Word perspective. If a computer has no word, we feel that it is inoperable.

  • The same applies to a lot of other things such as

  • In fact, our understanding of the world had been built on the foundation of Microsoft and its products.

What's Wrong with that?

There is nothing wrong with that. It only helps us start somewhere.

It explains a lot of things, some of which have to do with how Microsoft has come to dominate the PC consumer space. However, these are issues that have nothing to do with this post.

The only explanation I have managed to wreck out of my experience with using Windows and Linux is that:

  • While both operating systems are great, they seem to appeal to different markets. The fiery wars that sometimes erupt due to using one operating system over the other may be because the belligerents do not understand this.

  • In particular, Windows seem to be tailored for the business environment, whereas Linux is for the academia.

  • This does not mean that no business uses linux, nor are there no Windows in the academia. Rather, it means that Windows and its developers, can appeal more to the business world than to the academic.

  • Still, the above point may be contradicted by what is obtaining in practice: most servers, including web servers, are powered by Linux. Most schools locally use Windows.

  • The implication is that business products are often sold via marketing them. This results in them being popular than academic products.

Anyway, how do we relate this to accessibility, which I said I discovered.

Back to the accessibility Basics

Every accessibility setup involves some screen-reader, Braille support, OCR, magnification and such functions.

I had been trying to discover how accessible Linux is from the virtual machine setups.

However, my conviction came through some unexpected way: my introduction to Emacs and Emacspeak.

What is Emacs?

Emacs simply means "an Editor for Macros". While it is supposed to be a word-processing application, it is more than that:

  • It comes with its own Lisp interpreter which makes it "extensible and customisable."2

  • It is extensible in the sense that you can do more than just editing documents. You can even browse the web, read email, play multimedia, twit: or anything!

  • It has its own macro editing language, the Lisp language.

So to cut the long story short, it was through Emacs that I started taking my Linux journey seriously. This was made possible through Emacspeak.

Understanding Emacspeak

Emacspeak is an "audio desktop interface"3 to Emacs. It was developed by Dr. T.V. Raman in 1995, and makes it perhaps one of the oldest screen-readers around.

I was first attracted to Emacs through its manual: yeah, the manual hooked me up. I couldn't believe what I was reading about its capabilities.

First, the manual itself was big. But I managed to go through it within a week.

I then tried to run it on windows. After coming across the ported versions of Emacspeak from this Sourceforge site, and this one from GitHub, I started my Emacs exploration.

The Aftermath

I had been using Emacs on Windows for three years, and regularly doing some activities on Linux using the virtual machine.

When Windows started supporting Linux terminals through its Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) I was thrilled.

I began learning the Bash Shell scripting language, and tried it out on the terminal for Ubuntu that I downloaded from the Windows Store.

However, I couldn't settle for less: I was now eager to take a deep plunge into the Linux system itself.

This is how I ended up downloading the Ubuntu Mate distro, installed it and started my new life on Linux. For a month now, I never regret this choice.

Concluding Remarks

Finally, I just want to make a few remarks about the old Windows versus Linux debate.

I think it is normal in any environment in which two platforms exist to make comparisons.

These comparisons are on a number of things. But as to what I think about this, you can find outmore here where I try to drive the point home that it is not necessary to take sides in a controversy to enjoy your choice.

I think this is true of any choice in life though:

  • You don't have to bash your opponent to be productive on Windows, Linux, iOS, Android or Mac OS X.

  • You have to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of any platform you may be using.

  • You have to realise that our tastes differ: it isn't the strength of your weapon in a flame war that would convince others to adopt yours.

  • Some of these companies and organisations behind the platforms we fight for may be working together in a way that puts to shame their fan base and detractors alike.

So it came as no surprise for me when I learnt of Microsoft acquiring GitHub, which is the soul of Opensource development.

It also came as no surprise when Windows 10 started supporting Linux terminals through its Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), as a way for its users to be able to tap into the famed power of the bash scripts.

We should expect to see more of these cross-platform cooperation that should help end some protracted Internet flames over the superiority and evilness of other platforms.

I am finding Linux to my liking, but that does not make any other operating system horrible.

On this blog, I would be sharing my tips on Linux, ranging from customising it to maximising its accessibility.

I will continue to do the same with Windows or any other platform I am familiar with.

Thank you for reading this post!

Footnotes


1

Although this is no longer true today as either Firefox or Google Chrome seem to rule the rooster on Windows as well. But it used to be the case in the early 2000s.

2

See its homepage here.

3

This is how its developer refers to it, due to the way it provides feedback to the Emacs user. It is unlike the conventional screen-reader that relies on the application hooks to speak out what is on the screen. However, I think it makes life easier to just think of it as just a screen-reader.

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