Linux, a very powerful but still almost unknown environment for vision-impaired users


Back in 2006, I wrote that the Free Software community and disabled users must learn to communicate and invited Free Software developers to do their part. Last week I interviewed Tony Baechler, an active member of the Blinux mailing list, to check how things are going in 2010, and to know more about a very interesting project for Linux vision-impaired users he’s trying to launch.

Stop: Tony, how are you using Linux?

Tony: I primarily use Linux in a server environment, but as time goes on, I'm using it for more routine tasks. I almost always use the shell as a matter of choice. I still use Windows for many things like email. I prefer Debian but I've also looked at Ubuntu, Slackware and FreeBSD.

Stop: What are the Linux features you personally like the most?

Tony: Of course the cost and the fact that it's so much more stable and faster than Windows. I don't have to plan on a daily reboot! Another thing that drew me to Linux was the Speakup screen reader. For the first time ever, Speakup allowed me to hear every message on the console from boot to shutdown. That's impossible with Windows because of its proprietary nature. If Windows is having a bad day, your screen reader won't load and you have no idea what's going on. In Linux, Speakup even reads kernel panics, so I know exactly what went wrong. To me, that's real power!

Stop: What do you think are the greatest obstacles before Linux can be adopted by more vision-impaired users?

Tony: The biggest obstacle I see is lack of education and knowledge. It's impossible to get someone to try something new if they don't know it exists. Even when they're told about it, they have to be convinced that it's better than Windows. In the Windows world, you literally pay as much for your access as you do for the computer. One Windows screen reader sells for $795, plus fees for every major upgrade. Also, most blind people are on a limited income and can't afford a computer without help from family or a government agency. By the time you sink that much in your investment, the last thing you want to do is try something for free which might break something. I've mentioned the concept of a live CD, but people are too scared to take a chance. If they could actually hear people regularly using Linux for daily tasks, they would hopefully have more interest in trying it.

Stop: What about accessibility?

Tony: I think Linux still has a way to go in terms of accessibility. I will say right off that there are more and faster advances with Linux accessibility than proportionally on Windows, but it's still not perfect. One thing that still isn't really accessible is audio software. There is Audacity and it has advanced a lot, but it isn't as usable as Sound Forge or Adobe Audition on Windows (Stop's note: here's a recent review of accessibility in Audacity). It's getting better all the time, but as any Linux user knows, it's in a constant state of development. A lot of people feel more comfortable with Windows and like the fact that new releases only come out every year or two, even though Windows has far worse problems overall. The commercial screen readers have been around a long time and are established, while Orca is still relatively new.

Stop: You raise a very important point in my opinion, one that many software geeks very often tend to ignore: for the majority of today's computer users (regardless of disabilities), the fact that Free Software is totally customizable and rich of alternative solutions is a disadvantage, not a feature.

Tony: Exactly! To further complicate the problem, there are hundreds of distros but only some actually include accessibility support. Of course the best way to get better accessibility is with more users testing and reporting bugs, but that brings us back to the initial problem: how to get the blind to at least try a live CD (that is a version of Linux that runs off a Cd-Rom without installing anything on the hard drive?

The second part of the interview is on a separate page: Why custom documentation for Free Software is needed for vision-impaired users

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