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The StartX Files: Seeing Linux Without Sight - page 2

Twenty Feet and a World Away

  • February 27, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

Being blind, one popular misconception maintains, means to give up using the computer to do anything. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Braille screen readers have been around for years, giving visually impaired users the ability to read screens with up to 80 character-lines. There is even an 8-dot Braille system that goes beyond the standard 6-dot Braille and completely mimics the 256-character set most PCs use.

So using a computer not too difficult of a proposition for the blind. Still, running a windows-based interface is a bit pointless, since what is really only used is the text. And which operating system offers a dizzying array of text-based tools? Anyone from Microsoft want to take a raise their hands? Hm? That's what I thought.

One of the strongest efforts in making Linux more available to the visually impaired is the BLinux group, who's mailing lists cover the vast range of issues needed to get more access software out there. BLinux coordinates the efforts of several voice applications and Braille device modules, including Emacspeak, BrlTTY, Braifo, and UltraSonix, to name a few screen readers.

Of all of these, Emacspeak is one of the most powerful tools out there for eyes-free access. Emacspeak takes advantage of the fact that while Emacs is a text editor, it is also capable of doing many other things as well. Emacspeak is an audio desktop which allows access to the Linux platform.

Emacspeak, which is bundled with most of the major distributions, supports IBM's free ViaVoice Outloud speech synthesis engine. This effectively turns Linux into the first zero-cost Internet access solution for blind and visually impaired users, according the BLinux group. While it is best used in a text-only environment, the latest edition of Emacspeak does provide support for the Sawfish window manager.

Even with a strong screen reader, one of the biggest hurdles for blind users is the simple act of installing Linux. On most distros, running text or graphical installation routines is impossible without the aid of a sighted person. Since 7.0, though, SuSE has been packaging its own BLinux daemon which immediately looks for a Braille display on booting the installation CD.

If such a device is found, the Yast2 installation tool switches to text-mode and the the screen reader is started. This makes SuSE Linux the only system in the world that offers Braille support during installation. This functionality also extends into other areas that before could not support eyes-free use, such as kernel compilation.

SuSE's Blinux tool also supports a form of screen navigation. Braille devices represent exactly that line on the screen on which the cursor is currently positioned. Data that are not relevant at the moment are, of course, still available on the screen. With every move of the cursor, the Braille device jumps to the current line of the cursor. Cursor routing can be achieved via special buttons above the characters on the Braille device. With these, the cursor can be placed on any character. In this way blind users can operate all applications which are cursor-based. All actions that are not immediately visible on the Braille device are communicated through acoustic signals. For each application, special setting profiles can be specified that describe the application in more detail.

Braille is not the only way a blind user has to interact with their computer. Voice, as mentioned above, is becoming more prevalent. As voice recognition improves, look for more sophisticated control tools in the months ahead. Advances in text-to-voice synthesizing are also making sightless interfaces easier to use.

More work can be done in this area, as with many areas of Linux, but since the visually impaired are such a select group of users, it is important not to forget their software needs as the rest of us charge ahead with our new fancy desktop environments.

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