Ubuntu Accessibility Part 6: Why Linux distributions should care about Accessibility

So why should Linux distributions care about putting time and effort into developing and improving something that is likely going to benefit a minority of users? Unfortunately, this is a hard question to answer, as for most distributions, all you're likely to get is cudos for offering accessibility features, and possibly more widespread advocacy, and community involvement from those people who find such accessibility features useful. For Linux distributions who have a vested interest in the enterprise desktop however, not supporting and integrating accessibility means a greatly reduced chance of deployment and support contracts in education institutions, and workplaces.

Around the world, many governments are coming to the realization that having equal opportunity employment and accessible workplaces is important for everybody, including those with disabilities. As information technology and computing in the workplace becomes more commonplace, so will the need for equal access to technology for everybody. For a business who needs to deploy several tens, or several thousands of machines for their employees to use, Linux is starting to be a serious alternative to Widows, and other proprietary operating systems. However, if the business wishes to remain an equal oportunity employee, with an accessible workplace, Linux starts to be much less viable as it currently stands, due to the lack of well integrated accessibility technologies in most Linux distributions that aim at the enterprise market. The fact that some distributions do offer accessibility is a plus, but without commercial support available for it, its not something a business is likely to risk, added to that there is no training available to teach disabled employees how to use the accessibility technology.

So how far along are distributions when it comes to accessibility? From my research so far, not many distributions have people in their respective communities who are actively trying to help improve that distribution's accessibility. Debian and Gentoo both have developers and community members who help where possible. Fedora has people who, while not helping with Fedora development directly, do makemodified versions of Fedora available with extra accessibility included. Ubuntu is also lucky enough to have such a community, with people like myself actively trying to help improve Ubuntu's accessibility. These communities have been formed due to a desire by all members to improve Linux's accessibility for themselves and others.

However, while the core developers of such distributions embrace the contributions made by community members towards accessibility, there is generally little to no proactive action taken by distribution developers, unless one of them has a vested interest in doing so. Some accessibility developers don't always try and get their modifications included in their distribution of choice, but release modified disk images, and unfortunately don't reach nearly as big an audience as they would if their changes were part of their distribution proper.

If a Linux distribution's developers, financial backers, and its community are seriously interested in integrating, and improving accessibility in their distribution, community advocates, as well as developers, should seek to get more community involvement. This would likely result in some community members actively getting involved with distribution development.

Linux distribution vendors who have a vested interest in getting their software installed on enterprise and education desktops, should seriously consider investing time and money into further developing their distribution's accessibility, and training support/training staff on how to effectively use and support accessibility technologies. Exactly how this would be done would be up to individual distribution vendors, but one approach could be to hire an individual from that distribution's accessibility community who is well versed in the current goings on, and future developments in the accessibility field. This person would then liaise with the community, fielding feature suggestions, helping triage bugs, and keep abrest of any Linux accessibility, UI, and web standards. They would also communicate with the distribution's developers and web site designers, to pass on feature requests and suggestions, and to keep developers informed about any testing that they, or members of the community have done, and the results of such testing.

I, and many other members of the Linux accessibility community strongly believe in improving Linux's accessibility for everybody, particularly for those with disabilities. We will keep on doing so, even after our major goals have been achieved. If you are a part of a linux distribution community, whether it be Ubuntu, fedora, Novell/Suse, Debian, Gentoo, or one of the many smaller distributions out there, I strongly encourage you to contact your distribution's developers and community, and let them know about how important accessibility is for all of us now, and in the future. With the backing of several distributions, we can reach our goals that much sooner.

As for Ubuntu's accessibility, I'll tell you about how you can get involved with the Accessibility team in my next, and final post of this series.

Submitted by JW (not verified) on Fri, 11/30/2007 - 01:10.

I was thinking about offering Ubuntu as an option to a friend who needs accessible systems. However, I was not sufficiently impressed by the standard features in the accessibility area and gave up on that idea. The more "minority marketshare" Ubuntu can take away from Windows, the greater the victory will become.

Submitted by NathanDBB (not verified) on Fri, 11/30/2007 - 06:50.

I really care about this subject. Having 6 posts is not going to move people to action, because they will not read them all.

I think we also need to break accessibility into 2 main groups, Blind, and RSI/Hand. While they have significant overlap at the Application Programing Interface (API) level, their needs at the User Interface (UI) level are totally different.

Current *nix software does not serve either population well.

Submitted by TheMuso on Fri, 11/30/2007 - 07:54.

I think its better to have this stuff broken up into several blog posts, rather than have one or two big posts no?

I also don't agree with breaking accessibility into two groups, as there are other disabilities as well, such as deafness, and people with severe motor disabilities who have to use special hardware to make use of an on-screen keyboard to do their typing for example.

And of course the software won't survive either population well if its not worked on and improved, which is exactly why I am writing these blog posts.

Submitted by NathanDBB (not verified) on Tue, 12/04/2007 - 07:52.

Most computer UI uses no sounds, or the sounds are optional. You can turn the system bell into a screen flash, and use pop-up windows to do notifications. As long as you are not doing VoIP or playing a video game, I don't see how being deaf is an obstacle to computer use once you boot past the BIOS beeps. Audio output is not important most of the time and these people can use the standard screen output.

Input to computer: Motor/RSI/Hand
These people can use the standard screen output, but need alternate input. We may need compatibility with specialized input devices -- but the vendors would have to do much of that work. The UI is mostly unchanged, and the mouse can be done with feet or with a mouse-grid where a series of numbers describes a screen position.

Output from computer: Vision Impairment & Blindness
The user experience has to be somehow turned to a string, or a set of strings and menus. I can't say I know anything directly about pure Blindness. These people need a UI that does not use the main output method of the modern OS: the screen. They are able to use the standard input, except that they can not get visual feedback on the position of the mouse.

Submitted by TheMuso on Tue, 12/04/2007 - 14:51.

If you go through GNOME's preferences, you will see that there are various options for sound alerts, and conveying them visually. Yes I know that deaf people can use the screen for output, however I am sure there are cases where they need more visual output than is otherwise required.

As for motor disabilities, I am aware that they need alternative hardare to help them make use of a computer.

SO yes, you are right that it is essentially two categories, input an output, but for most if not all disabilities in either camp, the other, i.e output for people who need alternative input, and input, for those who need alternative output, also needs addressing, which is why I would rather not categorise disabilities, as all disabilities have their own individual needs.

Submitted by Maxo (not verified) on Fri, 11/30/2007 - 07:51.

One thing I think is important is that a strong number of those working on the accesability features need to be the people that actually need such technologies. It's easy for a person with site to develop tools for the blind. It is very difficult for that person to make those tools effective. I'm sure that you know about this more than I.

Submitted by TheMuso on Fri, 11/30/2007 - 09:09.

Thats very true, which is why the Orca team for example, has people involved who are blind, and why most of the accessibility software written for Linux is written by people who have a disability.

Submitted by dinopter (not verified) on Tue, 06/02/2009 - 17:45.

I personally prefer fedora more than any of the other distros, but I installed ubuntu http://www.ebook-search-queen.com/ebook/ubun/ubuntu.all.html on an external a while back. The problem with putting it on the same drive as your OSX system is that the disc utility that comes with mac osx cannot partition drives without reformatting the entire drive. This is pretty much what boot camp does, partitions your harddrive without erasing anything, but it dosn't make the extra partition free space, it sets it up for windows to be installed on the intel macs.

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