Sunday, 21 December 2008

Isn't Linux already Accessible?

Since releasing Vinux it has been pointed out to me that there are already some Linux distributions which provide accessibility and therefore I should not have claimed that Vinux was the first Linux distribution to provide full accessibility for blind and partially sighted users out of the box.

There are indeed distributions that provide accessibility features and some of these are designed specifically for visually impaired users. However I feel that the mainstream distributions are simply not accessible enough, and the specialist distributions often opt for a console based solution and are thus inaccessible to the sighted. Take for example the latest Ubuntu 8.10 release 'Intrepid Ibex' upon which Vinux is currently based. It does provide some accessibility features at boot, but you have to press enter to choose a language, then F5 and cursor down three times to enable speech support at boot, something that a beginner is unlikely to know or work out without sighted support. Even when the screen-reader is enabled it will not allow a user to run applications with root permissions without some terminal commands and/or significant modifications to the system. Again something a beginner is unlikely to be capable of doing independently.

While there are some specialist distributions and software packages aimed specifically at the VI community, they tend to be console based solutions which are inaccessible to sighted users unfamiliar with terminal commands etc. Even distributions that do offer a gui, often use high contrast colours, large fonts and icons which can distort the layout of windows or displace parts of them off the display altogether. Again this means that sighted users would find it difficult and disturbing to use. However, many VI users work with or alongside sighted users and having a desktop which sighted users are unlikely to want to use for any period of time only serves to perpetuate the alienation of VI users.

In conclusion, Vinux may not be the first distribution to be aimed specifically at VI users, or the first distribution to offer accessibility support. But I maintain that it is the first Linux distribution I know of that provides speech, magnification and braille support out of the box without any configuration or previous experience of Linux, whilst still providing an attractive visual interface for sighted users. I fully realise that 99% of the credit for this really lies with the developers of Gnome, Orca, Compiz and Ubuntu etc. All I have done is to make a number of small but significant changes that Canonical could have made to Ubuntu quite easily if they had wanted to, but they didn't and neither has anyone else yet to the best of my knowledge...