Sunday, 21 December 2008

Why do we need Vinux?

When I first released Vinux I was challenged by some members of the Linux VI community who thought that this kind of specialist distribution was undesirable and unnecessary. It was argued that specialised distributions took the moral pressure off mainstream developers to make their products fully accessible. Here is my considered response:

There are two very different approaches to accessibility. One school of thought believes that anyone should be able to access any software/hardware no matter what their disability, the other that it is either impossible or uneconomical to create a universally accessible solution and therefore specialist equipment/software is the most practical solution. I like to call these the 'idealist' and the 'pragmatic' approach to disability issues. I think everyone would agree that having a single accessible system would be great, but the difficulties of producing such a system are immense - has anyone actually achieved this yet in Linux, Windows or Mac? I would say not, although significant progress has been made. The crux of the issue is whether this is just a question of solving technical difficulties or are the needs of different users so diverse that it is not possible to make a universally accessible system without making unacceptable compromises.

I think when I was younger I may have fallen into the idealist camp, but with age and experience cynicism sets in, and I have just got fed up of waiting for something that really meets the needs of VI learners. How many more years am I and many other VI users going to have to wait for this universally accessible system, which may never actually arrive. I would absolutely love it if OpenSuse, Fedora or Ubuntu etc., were completely accessible, because I wouldn't have to give up many hours of my free-time to make something that I think is fit for purpose out of the box for VI users who have little or no experience of Linux. I do not object to mainstream developers incorporating accessibility into their distributions. However, I suspect some of the changes needed to really optimise a mainstream Linux distribution for VI users are so radical that it would probably alienate many sighted users.

In conclusion I believe that at least in the short term there is a real need for a specialised Linux distribution for the visually impaired, and I hope Vinux is a small step on the way to realising this...