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Linux -- A Viable Alternative For The Blind?

Blind computers users had more difficulty than most people when they made the transition from DOS to Windows. Would a switch to Linux be as great a problem? Saqib Shaikh thinks it would instead make their computing experience easier and richer. In the early 1990s, many blind people were using computers running MS-DOS. Many of them had good jobs as computer operators or programmers. Once Microsoft Windows appeared, employers wanted people who could use Windows word processors and follow instructions such as "Click on the green blob on the left to start Word." They wanted programmers who could write programs for Windows (which functionally were the same as the DOS ones) with fancy graphics which took advantage of features such as drivers and libraries not available under DOS. This left the blind computer user unable to use Windows for the next two or three years, while usable Windows screen readers were developed.

You may be thinking, "Why do I want to know about Linux if this is what is going to happen again?" But hang on -- while the scenario may be similar, the outcome need not be.

There are a number of fundamental differences between DOS/Windows and Linux and its accompanying GUI. Probably the most apparent difference is the abundance of useful text-based programs still available under Linux. When Windows 3.0 was released, it became difficult to find DOS-based HTML editors, PDF viewers, Web browsers that supported JavaScript, etc. Files created under Windows were no longer readable under DOS, meaning that everyone in an organization had to use Windows. Windows could support the latest hardware and had advanced features such as multitasking. Naturally, this led to a rapid decrease in the number of people using (and writing) DOS-based programs. With the introduction of Windows 95, Microsoft tried to completely hide the MS-DOS interface, further decreasing the interest in DOS.

In contrast, a modern Linux distribution contains many gigabytes of text-based applications. Even more text-based applications are freely available on the Internet. All of these programs are compatible with their graphical equivalents, so if a blind person wishes to use text-based tools within an organization, there is no issue regarding file sharing with those users using X. Furthermore, console applications can access all the new features of Linux that X-based applications can, such as new hardware support. In terms of multitasking, Linux is a multitasking operating system from the ground up.

There is no disadvantage to using the Linux console instead of the GUI. To put this statement into perspective, there are still a few advantages to using X. The main one is that some companies are once more only writing programs for X, such as Netscape and WordPerfect. While this may imply that the Linux revolution is heading down the same road as the DOS/Windows one, it should be pointed out that since more and more text-based Linux applications are still being developed, there are already programs that can perform equally well as the two commercial products named above.

[w3m is as good a browser as Netscape, better than it in many ways. Word Processing is a harder problem. While most people would be happier and more productive (and produce better documents) using Emacs or Vi and learning LaTeX or SGMLtools, some people in corporate jobs need to be able to handle Word documents. The Blinux FAQ reports that there are no up-to-date word processors that run on the console; they recommend writing HTML and asking recipients to use Word's HTML import filter. Perhaps the Abiword/OpenOffice and KWord teams should consider building console support into their programs; more than just the blind would appreciate being able to use a word processor over an ssh session. -- Editor]

This article has, until now, failed to address what is potentially one of the most important facts about Linux to a blind user -- its Open Source nature. Since the source code for Linux (and the vast majority of the applications written for it) is freely available, it is much easier for people to write screen readers for Linux than for other operating systems. There have been a number of attempts by individuals to write screen readers, and while they do not yet match the quality of DOS screen readers, they are, nevertheless, usable. These screen readers are almost all Open Source and freely available, eliminating the cost of many hundreds of pounds that an individual must spend to access DOS/Windows. If an existing access technology manufacturer were to decide to support Linux, I believe that the resulting product would give the user far better access than existing screen readers for other operating systems, as it is possible to "look inside" the workings of the supported applications.

In summary, the Open Source nature of Linux will allow better, more intelligent software to be developed for the blind computer user. While X is becoming increasingly popular, the Linux console is still being supported and will continue to be supported as long as Linux is around. In addition, the Linux console provides all the power available under X, if not more!

Saqib recently started a degree in computer science. In his free time, he likes reading, listening to the radio, and going out and socializing. Oh, and he's interested in computers too! You can contact him via email at You can learn more about him and see some of his work at Among other work, you'll find there the "BLinux Software Map", which describes some of the tools available to blind Linux users.

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Recent comments

13 Mar 2007 07:07 Avatar garym

Re: SuSE Linux 7.0


> % I may be biased, but ...

And indeed you are, as is the comment above about Emacspeak being "in use for years" by blind people. It has, and it has not. It has only in that geeks are people too -- a suitably motivated programmer can figure it out, and a suitably motivated employer can afford the expensive voice sythesis hardware or afford to buy the minimum-order 200-seat ViaVoice license (at $200/seat) to make a stable system, but all the other variations of Emacspeak are highly unstable, requiring frequent reboots, missing warning messages, missing error messages, in short, not very friendly to anyone who doesn't already know what is going on.

The same is true for SpeakUp: if you already know the meaning of every last prompt and message that will routinely spew out of the speakers, and programmers will probably find all that "interesting" anyway, then this system works very well, but as a general consumer-level system for a non-technical user? The only users I have encountered in that category had readily available free technical support on-site. That hardly describes the average.

I am quite disappointed with how this all turned out. When IBM yanked the free Linux TTS runtime, it put a fatal dagger in the heart of Emacspeak. DecTalk hardware works, so I am told, but I was also told that etalk, festival, flite, DTPC2 and Accent and espeak all "work" ... and they do only insofar as they occasionally speak intelligible words, but without multi-voice support, without clear diction, without speaking the warning messages but simply stalling or beeping when any of a thousand things go wrong, are they practical?

You'd have to really, really want to make them work for you, and still have sighted people nearby to explain why the LaTeX failed to compile your letter, or why the printer won't work, or why your email won't load or why you can't delete a spam or ...

01 Mar 2005 09:59 Avatar levicc00123

Re: SuSE Linux 7.0

> I may be biased, but SuSE Linux 7.0

> ships with official support for the

> blind out of the box - the screen reader

> support is in right from the

> installation on, and phone support for

> that is available.

gentoo also provides the SpeakUp patches for both the 2.4 and 2.6 kernel series as well as emacspeak

01 Oct 2000 02:02 Avatar garym

One essential and critical difference

Since our company ( is currently sinking our own cash into research on exactly this question of applying Linux as an "internet desktop" for the non-techie blind user, I am delighted to see the issue surface here on freshmeat. As positive as this article is, though, it misses one crucial and essential point about Emacs: Regardless what the vi lobby may tell you, Emacs (the underlying technology of Emacspeak) is not simply an editor or even a console. Emacs is a full implementation of Lisp with built-in primatives for text processing.

Because Emacs is the front end of a full and mature programming language, there are no limits, repeat, no limits. You can make it as complex or as simple as you wish, and you can drive it with any user interface you wish. It is all a matter or programming. Yes, emacspeak as shipped is geek-oriented, without a doubt, but the problem is fixable, which is more than you can say for the other O/S.

It is often said that any disabled person automatically has two
disabilities: one is their disability, the other is poverty. I believe they have a third: They are set on the outside of the Digital Divide. I also believe that, if we can correct that third disability, the impact of the other two are lessened. Our audio-desktop Internet machine is designed to test this hypothesis.

I will not mislead you. In field trials of our initial prototype, the emacspeak keyboard command set and the buffer/window/file concepts were our first great hurdle, but they were not insurmountable. Although our $700 system required one-on-one training, it was less time than what is recommended by the CNIB for training on their $9000 Windows-based systems. Once our decidedly non-geek test subjects scaled the learning cliff vocab of about two dozen (ouch) common emacs commands, they agreed the Emacspeak Audio Desktop paradigm was far superior to visualizing 2-D interfaces through a screen reader. Instead of being 2nd class 2-D users, they truly felt as 1st class Internet citizens

True, our system cannot (yet) interoperate with Microsoft Office, Exchange, Outlook, Lotus Notes or any Windows software; so our users cannot join the piddly 'inside' clique of 400 Million Windows Users and are forever cast into the 'outside' club with the other 5.6
Billion of humanity ;) I never liked exclusive cliques anyway, and since our target users are everyday non-tech people, this is not a big obstacle; they just want to get online like everybody else.

Now, we don't have the budget of Eazel, I am not even sure I would want responsibility for their multi-million-dollar commitments (although investors or donations of cash/hardware are certainly welcome!) With our modest means, all we can do is incrementally address each interface issue as it comes up with our test subjects, and fold these into our prototype as our time and finances permit. Our prototype is far from ready for prime time, but our initial results suggest there is real potential here to solve the digital divide problem experienced by blind and disabled users.

01 Oct 2000 01:25 Avatar cpchan

Emacs and the Blind
Blind people have been using Emacs for years through Emacs Speak.

30 Sep 2000 22:42 Avatar kriebz

in the works
I have heard of a project being conducted at Lehigh University about making Linux usable for the blind. I don't know of its scope or duration thought. I am also not sure if they are targeting programmers/profesionals, or just regular users. Kind of a good idea, in a humanitarian sense.


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