[NOTE: Edited and updated from original Feb 28 publishing date]
Our technology grant to Sunnyside Organics and Oregon Commission for the Blind has been a great learning opportunity and quite a process for us. It requires us to think differently in order to address the needs of the people we are intending to serve.
Previously, we tried to use Linux Mint 12, but found that the newer Gnome 3-based desktop environments were under-featured and incompatible with legacy hardware. Next, we tried to outsource most of the setup process to Vinux, but found it to be cumbersome to use and administer.
A project consultant who is a blind user also found it to be poorly-documented. He left us with some great feedback to get us on track to produce solid systems that are truly blind-accessible [emphasis mine]:
I definitely think you should have a blind person try whatever approach you have implemented. You need to remember that a blind user does not use a mouse but shortcut keys and this takes time to learn. It took me several months to collect the information I needed to use Linux as a blind person and then remember all the shortcut keys I use regularly. As I said before I use Ubuntu 10-4 because I found other versions of Ubuntu to have accessibility problems. I did try Vinux, but found that they had made so many undocumented changes that I could not get it to work for me. All appearances indicated that Vinux works for individuals with some sight but not those of us that do not use any sight when working with Linux. I therefore removed it from my test system and have not tried it since. Perhaps with a sighted person to setup the system it is more functional for a blind user.
I would strongly recommend that you find all the shortcut keys to access the programs that you are using and then teach them to any user before you expect them to successfully use the system and programs. In my opinion, you need to train a blind user of your system so that they can perform the desired tasks before you introduce the tasks to the general blind community. I think this is the only way you will find out what is needed for the blind user of your system without frustating the new user to the point of giving up before even learning how to use the system. If you want to pre-test the system with a sighted person simply have them try the system with the monitor turned off. This should be possible since I run Linux without a monitor turned on all the time. In fact, the only time I turn on my monitor is when I am having a problem and ask a sighted person to tell me what is on the monitor.
That left us with a final option of using Ubuntu 12.04, which means waiting for its official release date of April 26, 2012 in order to obtain a stable copy. On the positive side:
- it means that we can use Unity 2D
- a modern interface that supports aging legacy hardware well
- it is supposed to be “100% accessible” according to the Ubuntu Accessibility Team
- Ubuntu 12.04 is a Long-Term Support (LTS) release, which means
- it will remain viable for several years. In this case, 5 years!
- Because of this, the developers build it to be extra stable and reliable.
That’s worth the wait, yeah? We hope so!
Our consultant’s feedback also indicated that many — if not most — of the fancy GUIs are superfluous or even awkward or nonfunctional to blind users [emphasis mine]:
I have used Thunderbird for email, but the latest version of Thunderbird has changed how it interacts with Orca and I find it awkward to use now. I have found a number of command line email programs and will probably change to one of them in the near future. I generally prefer using a command line version of a program in Gnome-terminal when possible. The reason is that Gnome-terminal works well with Orca and it gives me a history of what I entered so I can find my mistakes more quickly. Also, using command line programs means I have the bash editing capabilities to quickly correct errors.
Based on this feedback, we researched productivity programs that run in a text terminal, with text-based interfaces intended to be driven by keyboard shortcuts. Here’s what we found:
terminal-based text tools
Blind users don’t need bloated, mouse-dependent GUIs. Often times, keyboard control is more direct and simple with dedicated text interfaces. We found several that have user-friendly options, great built-in help and discoverability.
- sc spreadsheet calculator (text-based vi-like spreadsheet app)
- Linux Journal has a nice introduction and tutorial.
- alpine(text-based email)
- extensive internal, context-sensitive help, accessible by pressing ? or ^G in most screens
- links (text-based web browser)
- qalc (text-based calculator)
- cmus (text-based music jukebox with vi commands)