open source blindness

What if all of your software were free, like NVDA? What if the only thing asked of you by software makers was to donate or contribute? How would this effect your life, and the lives of developers? In this article, I will explain what open source is, what it is currently used for, my experiences with it, and how you can make it better.

Table of Contents

What is Open Source?

Open source is a splinter of the Free Software movement. The Free Software movement believes that everyone should be able to view a program’s code, and modify it if needed. The thing which sets open source apart is that it doesn’t mind working with companies which create closed source, or proprietary, software which cannot be modified or have its source code seen by the user.

When free and open source spokespeople talk about freedom, they mean free as in free speech, not as in free things. This talk of freedom upsets business, so the term “open source” is used instead. Much open source software is free of cost, with the developers asking for donation instead of demanding payment.

What is Open Source used for?

Open source software is just about everywhere, and often comes with a tightly knit community of users. Examples of open source in the blind community include NVDA, LibreOffice, Orca Screen Reader, Braille Blaster, Liblouis, and Emacspeak. Examples of closed source include JAWS for Windows, Narrator, VoiceOver, the latest version of TalkBack, Duxberry Braille translator, iOS, Windows, and plenty of apps you may have on your iPhone or Android phone.

Interestingly, some projects are a mixture of both. JAWS incorporates Liblouis for braille translation, and so do Narrator and VoiceOver. Apple uses plenty of open source tools: Python, command line shells, and many command line tools on MacOS. Microsoft makes BRLTTY and Liblouis available for download to interface with Narrator.

Linux, which founded many offshoots, is an entire operating system built on open source ideals. Blind people began customizing Linux for use with speech, and work is ongoing to make Linux an accessible operating system. This began with Vinux. It started up talking, something no other system had done before. One could use it with speech or braille, and used the eSpeak voices.

That operating system, or distribution of Linux as they are called, is now abandoned, not having been updated in years. Another project, Sonar Gnu Linux, also came and went. It was based on Arch Linux, and was my favorite distribution. People now use Talking Arch, or Tarch, if they are adventurous and Slint Linux if they aren’t. These are the most popular Linux distributions for those who are blind. If I’ve missed anything, let me know. Some distributions which were not made for the blind are also accessible. Fedora, Trisquel, Debian, and Ubuntu are also able to be installed, but the user must know the correct keyboard command to turn on the screen reader.

Most open source software can be found on Github. That’s where NVDA, Orca, and many other tools, even for the blind, are. But how reliable are these tools? What about the operating system? Could one get rid of Windows with this software founded on ideals?

My experiences with Open Source

Linux

Accessibility is a software issue, so the root of software, the operating system, will make or break any accessibility. My experiences with Linux began, mainly, with an old operating system called Vinux. I didn’t stick with it for long, and soon forgot about it, and it is now abandoned. Linux can run many different desktops, which give users the major system functions of accessing apps and system utilities. Gnome and Mate are accessible, just about everything else, for now, including KDE, isn’t. Vinux used Gnome 2, which is basically what Mate is now.

I came back to Linux for a short while with Sonar. I really liked it, but missed the games and speech options Windows had. I liked all the software that we have access to on Windows, and browsing the Internet with Linux wasn’t that good back then. I soon got into the Apple ecosystem with an iPhone and such, and already had a Mac for quite a while. Still, Linux called to me.

I’m never satisfied with the workflow I have. I always want to be more efficient, more quick, more capable in what I do. I always want better sound, even if 3D effects and virtual surround sound aren’t actually necessary or real. Like a sighted person wants great graphics, I want great sound. On Linux, there is a way to enable virtual surround sound, but it offers little reward, and much configuration, crackling in audio, and doesn’t augment stereo audio as options on other systems does. The Mac has a third-party option, Boom 3D, and Windows has Windows Sonic for Headphones. Both of these require nearly no configuration, augments much more audio, and only Boom 3D causes a bit of sluggishness.

I also want a faster way of doing things. Many keyboard shortcuts, letter navigation of items in lists and menus, and ways of only getting the information I want. I have much of this on the Mac, with the Mail app allowing me, through table navigation, to speed through subjects instead of having to hear the row titles and contents and all before what I really want to hear, and being able to go to the previous or next message in a thread without needing to close the window. Linux has some of this, but many times things are unclear, with Orca, the Linux screen reader, just speaking the items, and not what type of item it is. This is clear in the area of Audacious settings where you choose sound effects.

Even so, Linux has such an appeal to me. I have tried Fedora Linux, Slint, Ubuntu, Debian, Arch, and found that there is always something missing. Accessibility isn’t that good in the graphical interface, and much still takes a lot of configuring and asking the community. And I really hate asking for help.

Recently, the Mate desktop team has released a version with accessibility fixes. This is important, as many companies, like app developers, Apple, and Google, rarely share that there are accessibility fixes in minor updates, and don’t even share all the new features in major releases. This gives me some hope that the open source community at large just needs more blind people telling them about our needs. Then again, this is probably just another of my excuses to bash my head against the hardened wall of Linux, yet again. Plus, everything in the open source moves slowly, and this is doubly true for open source assistive technology.

There are, however, blind people who use Linux, just as there are some in the blind community who use Android. In fact, there is an entire Linux Accessibility Site. However, the site does have links to abandoned software, and doesn’t link to all accessibility initiatives, like Stormux. Both Linux-a11y and Stormux ask for donations, so there is also duplicated effort and decentralization even in the blind Linux user community.

Now, I use a Mac. It contains enough open source technology to support Homebrew, a package manager. I can run Emacs, with Emacspeak on it, along with just about any command line program I’d use on Linux. The Mac’s graphical interface is good enough for mail and some web browsing, just not so good with Google Docs, and I can probably do anything on it that a Linux user can do.

And yet, sometimes, Linux calls to me still. VoiceOver isn’t the best screen reader out there, and Linux has the appeal of being run by people, not corporations. And yet, looking at the GNU accessibility statement, you’d think it was updated in 2006 or so. It may have been, which is a slap in the face for any accessibility advocate. The GNU project, with this statement, says to us that we’re only worth putting up a quick page, detailing the inaccessibility of old technologies and not maintaining it. It tells us that we’re a good poster to hang up in their trophy room of “people aided by our courageous stand for the minorities who desperately need our help,” but then discarded for the “community” to handle. After all, the GNU don’t know anything about helping the blind, do they? Can the GNU be expected to enforce accessibility among their projects? Doesn’t the government take care of the poor blind people? Blind people have their Vinux and Sonar, why not just use those? No, that is definitely not segregation, not at all!

Open Source Programs

I began using NVDA around high school. No one had ever heard of it at that point, in a day when people called all screen readers either “JAWS” or “Microsoft.” I’ve not stopped using it ever sense. Its features have grown, its users growing even faster. It now has a community of programmers, translators, and writers. It is, in my opinion, the most versatile Windows screen reader. JAWS still works okay for some things, like malformed spreadsheets, but for everything else on Windows, I use NVDA.

Braille Blaster is also a great project, making braille translation, embossing, and transcription free. I use it for translating EBooks into good, formatted braille files for reading on my iPhone using the BARD Mobile app. Now, I don’t even use Duxberry, even though it is provided on my work computer.

I’ve found that open source programs, built upon closed source operating systems, are the best compromise. NVDA, BrailleBlaster, TDSR, and many other tools built for the blind community run on Windows or Mac. Having a great foundation in accessibility makes all the difference for users.

How can You help?

Github, as stated earlier, is a hub of open source projects. One great thing about the service is that anyone can contribute. Just make an account, and you’re ready to help.

If you can program, you can collaborate by modifying code. If you try the software and find accessibility problems, you can tell developers about bugs or features that need fixing or adding. If you find a project you like, they may have a Patreon to which you can donate, or you can simply spread the word.

One large project which has become accessible through efforts of the blind reaching out is Retroarch. An issue was created asking for accessibility, and it was released in the very next version, and even more work is being done to make even more games accessible. Open source collaboration is great for even more than just programming. See projects I’m working on, all text, on the About page of my original blog.

Another bit of news is that GTK, a way for programs to be displayed and written, has had a Hackfest, where accessibility was extensively discussed. It is hoped that this means that accessibility will become a larger issue in Linux, and that blind people will one day be able to use Linux as confidently as they use Windows and Mac now.

Conclusion

As time goes by, I find myself drawn to open source. its promise of a better way of making software, the community of helpful people, and the freedom give me hope. While the Linux operating system does not come close to satisfying the hope I have for accessibility, programs and initiatives on top of Windows and Mac have thrived. While the poor accessibility statement of the GNU project shows that the community at large does not yet care much about accessibility, the community of blind people working for our own future, rather than that of a corporation, gives me hope of a bright future of digital accessibility for blind people.

What do you think, reader? Does open source call to you as well? Do you just use whatever system you’re given? Have you made peace with Linux’s shortcomings around accessibility? Please, let me know. I am glad to receive feedback. If you’d like, you may even suggest, via email or Twitter, articles for which you feel passionate about that need coverage. I will consider all that you send me, and thank you for reading.

Written on February 17, 2020
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