For some time now, I have wanted to get some familiarity with the Linux world. Not for any particular reason, just from hearing people talk about it and its potential, and thinking, “That sounds fun.”
Having no idea where to start my little experiment, I perused the AppleVis forum and came upon a topic for someone trying to install Ubuntu as a virtual machine on their Mac and having trouble enabling Orca, the screenreader built-in to Ubuntu and other distributions. Intrigued, I did some basic research into Orca and came upon the Ubuntu Accessibility Wiki and the Orca user guide.
The information I found seemed straightforward enough, but when I mentioned it in a comment, the OP told me that they tried that with no luck.
One night, when I was bored and had some free time, I thought I’d try it myself. For this experiment, I am running the virtual machine in VMware Fusion, and am writing this post in Ubuntu with LibreOffice.
A brief introduction to screenreaders and accessibility
As mentioned in the title of this article, I am totally blind and thus rely on screenreading software to use computers and mobile devices.
Screenreaders speak the contents of a screen with synthetic speech, and allow for alternative means of navigating the user interface. For example, on a computer, a screenreader allows a user to navigate using a variety of keyboard commands instead of the mouse.
On macOS, iOS, iPadOS, watchOS and tvOS, the built-in screenreader is VoiceOver. Windows comes with a screenreader called narrator, but many Windows users prefer to use a third-party screenreader like Jaws or NVDA.
As the purpose of a screenreader is to speak and allow for the tailored navigation of operating systems and applications, they must be able to convey the complex aspects of modern user interfaces, which is sometimes easier said than done. Therefore, not everything is accessible, and for things that are, there is a broad spectrum of just how usable it is for a screenreader user.
As stated above, Orca is the screenreader built-in to many Linux distributions. While I have years of experience using macOS, iOS and Windows, I have never used Linux, and that’s where our story picks up.
A brief introduction to Linux
For those who have no idea just what Linux is, you’re not alone. If you’re a personal computer user, you’re probably familiar with one or both of the two dominant operating systems, Windows and macOS. However, there is one other operating system that commands a relatively smaller, but loyal following, Linux.
Linux is open-source software, meaning it is not owned like the other proprietary operating systems. For this reason, there is a vibrant community of coders who customize Linux to run on anything from personal computers to servers to embedded systems in consumer appliances. In fact, if you have an Android smartphone, you’re already using Linux, as the Android operating system is Linux based.
These unique flavors of Linux are known as, “Distributions,” or simply, “distros.” For the purposes of just testing the waters and getting my feet wet, I went with one of the most popular distros for computers, Ubuntu, which can be downloaded for free from Ubuntu.com.
Installation and getting started
As I don’t have a dedicated system to run Ubuntu on, I installed it on a virtual machine with VMware Fusion on my Mac. Once installed, I enabled the Orca screenreader by pressing Command Option S on my Mac keyboard.
In Linux terms, the Command key on Apple keyboards is equivalent to the Super key, and the Option key is equivalent to the Alt key. Therefore, if you are trying to use Linux and are instructed to press Super Alt S, press Command Option S.
As I had largely configured my settings through the VMware Easy Install tool, I just tabbed to my name, pressed return and entered my password, and I was on the desktop. As Orca required either the caps lock or insert key as a modifier, a key that when pressed, performs functions specific to the screenreader, I immediately mapped the caps lock key to the insert key with Karabiner Elements, chose to use Insert as the modifier, and made sure the keyboard layout was set to laptop. This way, I could use the caps lock key as an Insert key, as Fusion wouldn’t seem to let that key be passed to the virtual machine, but with the layout set to laptop, I could avoid the need to use numpad keys, which I do not have on my keyboard.
This is where things get tricky. At first, it felt so painfully slow with the default settings configured by Fusion that I went into the virtual machine settings and increased the available ram from 2 to 4 gigabytes and added a second processor core. Yes, this brought macOS to a crawl, but at this point, I can’t imagine using the two OSs simultaneously, so that was okay.
Once that was done, Ubuntu started feeling snappier, but there are still aspects of Linux that either aren’t working correctly on my system or that I just don’t understand.
For example, according to the Ubuntu accessibility Wiki, both desktop environments, Unity and Gnome, are accessible and usable with Orca. However, in the login window after installing Gnome from the Ubuntu Software Center, I can’t seem to navigate the dialog beyond my name and a button labeled, “Not listed.” Clicking this button opened a window with a cancel button, a text element that Orca refused to read, and a next button. Not knowing what this was, I hit cancel.
Another thing that doesn’t seem to be working is the Unity Launcher, accessed by pressing Alt F1. In theory, this is supposed to show a list of apps, but Orca only reads this as, “Window,” which doesn’t seem to be at all navigable. If I press the Super key and type the name of an app, however, I can usually navigate and choose the search results with Orca.
Once in apps like Firefox or LibreOffice, everything seems to be working as expected. Similar to Windows, pressing Alt and the first letter of a menu, such as F for File, worked, and from there, I was able to use the arrow keys to navigate the available options. In Firefox, familiar browser commands like H for heading, K for link, L for list, etc worked reliably to navigate webpages.
From what I could tell, the Ubuntu Software Center seemed to be navigable and accessible, but I didn’t actually try using any apps from there.
As a start, I’d have to say my Linux Ubuntu experience was so-so. Once I adjusted my virtual machine settings and key mappings, things seemed to run more smoothly, but the apparent inaccessibility of some key areas of the desktop environment still puzzle me.
That said, it is entirely possible that I am missing some key Linux concept, that there are other distros that are more screenreader friendly, that I am just a Linux noob at this point, or all of the above. If any blind or visually impaired Linux users come upon this post, I’d be interested to hear your experiences, be they positive, negative or neutral. Sound off in the comments.