Linux Accessibility: Why sticking to text mode will leave you behind

Its been a while since I've blogged, as I haven't really had a lot to blog about, however recent goings on in the blind Linux community have motivated me into writing this post, which is very much likely to be controversial amongst the blind Linux community, but oh well, I feel my opinion needs to be aired. For those new to this discussion, and are unsure as to what the title means, a little bit of history is in order. If you haven't read my series of posts about Linux Accessibility, I suggest you go and read those now, as that will give you more insight as to what I am going to be discussing here.

The first accessibility that was available for blind Linux users, was on the console, through emacs, using Emacspeak, and the use of packages like Speakup, and Brltty, to provide speech and Braille access to the Linux text console, or command-line. For the users who made use of these tools, it allowed them to be very productive in most day to day tasks, particularly email, writing documents, playing audio, and some web browsing. These solutions have suited many blind/vision impaired Linux users, including myself, for several years.

However, while the text console is still very useful for a lot of these tasks, it is not where Linux end-user applications such as web browsers, word processors etc are going. This is particularly true of web browsing, as many websites are now appearing that provide more fancy features for fully sighted users to take advantage of, improving the usability of the site. At the same time, accessibility for such sights is also improving, thanks to assistive technology's ability to leverage accessibility features in the web browser, to provide high quality access to such websites, thereby ensuring that people with disabilities can access the same websites as everybody else, with little to no extra effort on the part of the user.

While there are text mode web browsers that are quite usable, even with a lot of today's websites, and while one or two of these text web browsers do support some javascript functionality, these browsers will likely increasingly not be able to provide access to websites for users, as websites become more interractive. Added to that, it is likely not in the webmaster's best interest to support such text mode web browsers, because doing so may adversely affect the usability of the sight for others, and the text mode web browser user is only a tiny fraction of the blind/vision impaired user base. The webmaster has already taken steps to provide accessibility for a minority group of people, the vast majority of which use graphical user interface (GUI) operating systems, and web browsers to access the web anyway, so, the webmaster has fulfilled their accessibility obligations.

Whilst not as big of a concern, but still important, is word processing. The OpenOffice.org word processor is already quite accessible for most document writing, and this is only going to get better. Word processing in text mode is also possible, however in order for one to write documents that need particular formatting, text style, font etc, one needs to use a form of markup to write such documents. HTML is one possibility, as well as latex, however most users will not want to have to learn such markup, and will simply want to use a word processor like OpenOffice to do their document writing, and make their document presentable as needed.

Certainly text mode/console accessibility is needed at times when X or GNOME break, but I personally see daily tasks becoming more and more difficult, particularly web browsing, in the coming years. If you are a user of the console, but would like to see GUI access improved, please speak up, and we as a developer community will do our best to take your suggestions onboard, and provide the improvements you need to make the switch over to using GNOME. However if you still wish to use the console regardless, thats fine too, but keep in mind how difficult it may be to access your favourite websites down the track.

Submitted by sheya (not verified) on Sun, 02/17/2008 - 08:01.

Trust me, there are many problems altogether in the GUI world. Personally I am not as much impaired as you, so I can cope with visual deficiences a lot easier with my thick glasses, but these deficiencies in programs built by other developers can be annoying - I often get simply frustrated and have to ask myself, why would any user need to be in a situation where someone *else* thought that *this* is the "proper" way to do something. It is not only customizability, I often wonder how anyone can be productive with certain setups. For example, I like to use the KDE konsole and use bluefish as an editor, but the way my desktop (Xfce) works is sub-excellent. Too often I switch between windows with the mouse whereas I know that after certain actions, I'd always switch to a specific other window automagically ... but it is not at all easy to figure out how to do this.

I think "power users" are often left out too, and most I know end up using a small (tiling) windowmanager that they end up customizing a lot to their needs.... but i dont really want to use something that will not really enter any evolution. I am maybe a "power user" but I also enjoy desktop environments. KDE4's ruby bindings to its applets will be one thing I would love to try out.

What would be needed is a better, smarter way to customize everything.
Accessibility is one part of it. It is one way to look at a problem, and if all the ways are combined, one gets a big and still usable picture of it.

If one watches what happens, you will see fights happening over WIMP models, or whole Desktop Environments compared to something like Ion or Xmonad. I think instead of all the fights against each other, people should fight for customizability - and if they fight at all, then they should fight against other people who want to dictate how you *should* use your computer (as far as usability is concerned, but actually I extend this to anyone telling someone else something i.e. in the Linux community you often hear someone telling you to not run as superuser. People should not accept this at all and refuse to use a distribution which forces you into its "security" model.)

Anyway, hopefully you continue to highlight problems and discrepancies therein the accessibility issues.

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