resources / technical info / technology grants

Computers for people who don’t see (well)

Someone recently approached me at work with some computer questions.  I happened to mention the Greater Salem Technology Equity Project (GSTEP) and our recent project to supply training computers for Oregon Commission for the Blind and Sunnyside Organics, and she immediately had an idea:

An old laptop a friend bought for her was sitting unused because it had gotten a virus and the person who “fixed” the computer had simply formatted the hard drive, leaving it useless.

The hardware was in perfect condition.  She wanted to know if she could buy another operating system and have someone install it so she could give it to a good friend of hers, who had a stroke and is partially-sighted (he can see, but not well, and needs aids such as a screen reader, large text, magnification, extra contrast, etc).

I suggested that we try going the free route, first.  She brought in the old computer, which to my surprise, was a top-of-the line $2500 (4 years ago) Sony VAIO VGN-SZ491N 13″ LED Core2Duo 2gb DVD-RAM computer.  A good computer by today’s standards, especially for Linux!  Very thin and light, ~4 hrs of battery life by my estimates.  Some useful commands to run first-off to get familiar with the hardware (with root privileges, using sudo):

lspci, lshw, lsusb [with and without -v], dmidecode, lsmod

I redirect their output on first run to desktop text files using the > Desktop/[name of file] command.  For example:

sudo lspci > Desktop/lspci.txt

Most everything worked out of the box with Ubuntu Unity.  The only thing that simply wasn’t detected was the EDGE mobile network card.  Not a big deal.

I just leave the “stamina / speed” switch set to “stamina.”  There’s little point to using the Nvidia card.  It’s out of date, uses more power, and isn’t as well supported as the Intel graphics.  The built-in Intel graphics are more than enough for everything except gaming, and actually provide a better desktop experience but are much slower with pure 3d.

The three biggest things I had to do were the following:

1. research Thomson Microelectronics Fingerprint Reader, lsusb:

idVendor 0x0483 SGS
idProduct 0x2016

Install via

2.  Install camera driver for Ricoh Co., Ltd Visual Communication Camera VGP-VCC5 [R5U870] lsusb:


according to

  • add user to “video” group
    • check to see if necessary: groups <username>
    • add the user to the group: sudo adduser <username> <group>


  1. sudo add-apt-repository ppa:r5u87x-loader/ppa
  2. sudo apt-get update
  3. sudo apt-get install r5u87x
  4. sudo /usr/share/r5u87x/

3. Install a large mouse cursor.

This was probably, and a bit ironically, the most complicated part of the computer setup.  It’s sad that changing cursor size is so hopelessly broken right now when it is such a fundamental accessibility issue.

Here’s what I (think I) did to get a consistently large, visible mouse cursor:

  1. Followed these directions through step #8
  2. Install dconf-tools
  3. Run dconf-editor and follow these directions to change the default cursor to Large-Mouse-Cursors and size of 64 pixels OR perhaps
  4. These directions.  And these as well.  And these directions thoroughly, too.  Like it said, it’s a mess.  And these. And these.

Probably only one of the last three solutions in #4 are all that are needed.  But it’s confusing, I was exhausted and I don’t have enough experience yet to confirm what works consistently.

and 4. I used compizconfig-settings-manager to enable screen zoom, magnifier glass, negative (useful to add contrast, or to reverse the better-supported high contrast theme instead of using the less-supported high contrast-inverse theme), shortcuts to activate the screen reader (configure to read objects under mouse), enlarged the launcher bar and screen text, etc.

Lastly, I installed a few additional programs, simplified the launcher menu, and created a cheat-sheet for the most important computer functions:

Keyboard shortcuts

For main desktop shortcuts:
hold down the <super> key (the Windows key; aka the key with the Windows logo on it)

To zoom in or out of entire desktop:
control alt +
control alt –

To zoom in firefox or chromium web browsers only:
control +
control –

To use the magnifying glass for partial screen zoom (or additional zoom on top of screen zoom!):
shift alt M (to activate at default zoom) and/or
shift alt scroll up (trackpad or mousewheel) to activate or zoom in
shift alt scroll down to deactivate or zoom out

To change to negative colors:
control shift alt N (in current window only)
control shift alt M (to toggle all windows negative)

To locate mouse cursor: tap the control key

To activate screen reader: control shift alt R

To adjust desktop text size:
control alt [ (smaller text) and
control alt ] (larger text)

To adjust web browser text size or file/folder icon size:
control + or control –

Installed programs:
Web browsers: Firefox, Chromium (google chrome) and Links (text only)
LibreOffice (word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing)
ShotWell (photo manager, like Picasa or iPhoto)
Skype webchat
Thunderbird email client
Gwibber social network client
Redshift to protect eyesight
many more are available through the Software Center

Laptop features:
webcam and built-in microphone. Stereo microphone capable via plugin.
headphone out jack
video out jack
Fingerprint reader (to use finger prints instead of password)
Wireless networking
2-button trackpad with vertical and horizontal scroll
Brightness and volume adjust via software or hardware keys
fn F2 – F4 for mute, down and up
fn F5 and F6 for brightness down and up
fn F7 to toggle external display setting

NOTE: the “stamina/speed” switch should remain on “stamina” for best performance. “Speed” activates a 2nd graphics card that will cause the laptop to overheat and slow down.

password: gos32c

We will see how the computer works for her friend — she knows just enough to teach him basic usage on it.  Having a stroke as well as being partially-sighted poses quite a bit of learning challenge.  I may be that computers don’t work for him at all.  It’s not that big a deal because it is mostly for entertainment, as well as some email communications.

But I figure it was worth a try, and is also a great learning experience so things go more smoothly the next time.  The mouse cursor themes are the biggest stumbling block.  As soon as I have a consistent way to change cursor theme and size, I will post it here.


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