A Look At Accessible GNU/Linux


For the past year or so, I have wanted to try a good operating system built on top of the Linux Kernel. (A “Kernel” is a bit of software central to all computing. It works behind the scenes interpreting your mouse-clicks,, keyboard events, handles memory management and much more.)

I do most of my work in the graphical user interface of the Gnome Desktop and I will focus on that here.

In the past, I had run a GNU/Linux OS under Microsoft windows with a no-cost virtual machine, called vmware Player. This time, I wanted to try the Vinux distribution of the [Ubuntu GNU/Linux OS] and I wanted to know if I could really use it as my day-to-day operating system for work and for play.

I could not afford a new computer from dell, hp or even Wal-Mart. So I went online and searched for a while, ultimately finding a company called Blaire Technology Group. where I found a refurbished laptop for $190.

When my laptop arrived, I put the vinux4 64bit disk in it loaded up and the vinux version of Ubuntu came up. It did not talk right away so I used the keystroke (CtRL+ALT+o) to launch the Orca screen reader and I had speech and, if I wanted, refreshable braille.

A Few Definitions

Throughout this article, you will read the terms, “Vinux,” “GNU/Linux” and “Ubuntu” frequently. These three are related, very similar but not exactly the same things. For clarity, here are their definitions in the context of this piece:

  • GNU/Linux is the generic term for all operating systems based on the Linux Kernel. This includes Ubuntu, RedHat, Debian and all others. Any of these different distributions of the OS can be made accessible and eau has its own special characteristics.

  • Ubuntu is the specific version of the GNU/Linux operating system that we’ll be discussing in this article.

  • Vinux is a special version of Ubuntu made by blind volunteers to contain as much of value to people with vision impairment as possible while also providing an out-of-the-box accessible installer and experience without having to make any modifications yourself.

Installing GNU/Linux with Vinux4

The installation of Vinux4 was quite simple. I found that, for a blind user, it is easier than installing windows because you have speech through every step of the process where, on the Microsoft OS, there are a number of things one needs to do before your access technology can be run.

Installing Ubuntu with the Vinux distribution was easy.. First it asks you to pick your language. You do that by choosing the language of your choice from a list box, tabbing to the continue push button and pressing enter. The rest of the installation goes smoothly with properly spoken prompts to make a choose a number of installation preferences. One needn’t fear missing anything during the installation as all of this can be done from within the Gnome interface later.

For the new computer user learning the Gnome desktop is pretty easy. While describing all of the cool features of this accessible operating environment is beyond the scope of this article, I can you assure you that even a computer novice can learn it all pretty easily. I recommend the Orca “Getting Started” document as the first place to learn about using a GNU/Linux system with this terrific screen reader.

finding cool Ubuntu apps

The easiest way to find applications is by getting them from either the Ubuntu software center or the Linux Free Software Catalogue . most programs have automated installation routines that make adding them to your system very simple.

Some Applications I Use

I enjoy using various media players. My favorites are vlc, and rhythmbox. I like using audacity for audio editing and sound converter to work with audio files. handbrake is a good program for ripping dvds. .

rhythmbox is similar to iTunes. It lets you record radio stations and add new ones. You can use rhythmbox to manage your iPhone. Brazero lets me easily burn disks both dvds and cds. gnu cash financial management software, is completely accessible, and works with quickbooks files.

These are just a few of the accessible apps that work with vinux. There are many more out there. installing something, trying it, and then removing it with software center or if needed with terminal is perfectly safe and will not damage your machine. It is also easy to add more software stores but this may be something most useful to more advanced users.

Some Applications Specifically Useful to Blind Users

the quantum omnidirectional barcode scanner works great in this system. My canon document scanner and others work good with speedy-ocr for scanning in books and handouts for school. One can use audiobook creator to turn your documents into audiobooks. If you need better sounding speech you could buy and use a third party speech synthesizer. You can use Calibre to convert ebooks into accessible formats.

If you’re tired of paying for duxbury braille translation software?? You don’t need to in this system as. odt2braille and brailleBlaster are free alternatives. They are powerful braille authoring tools.


I use the applications above for fun and profit but we do need to consider programs useful when we need to work. For your daily work you’ll need an office suite. and you’ll need to buy an expensive one right? nope, wrong. Vinux comes with an easy to use powerful Microsoft Office compatible suite of applications called libreoffice. It’s “Writer” application is just like word, and it’s calc is just like excel. In fact, LibreOffice can save all your work in Microsoft office format so you can easily share your libreoffice documents with the rest of the windows using world and no-one will ever know you are not using windows.


Overall the Vinux 4 flavor of the Ubuntu GNU/Linux operating system is a good alternative to Windows. It is fast, stable, unlikely to catch a virus and even has some accessible games available.. You can run windows inside a virtual machine if you want or need to. ,

My Plans

Inspired by this excellent and accessible software, I’ve decided to try to start up a small business selling refurbished computers with vinux preloaded and ready to go. So when your computer arrives in the mail you can just turn it on and start using it with speech out-of-the-box.

. I hope this review will help alleviate people’s fears about trying something new, and in many cases something better than what the commercial AT and operating system companies can offer.

13 thoughts on “A Look At Accessible GNU/Linux”

  1. Hello there, Josh well written article, I have to agree on allot of this material. Vinux is very accessible and I can navigate paypal with no issues with Orca. I was able to navigate the Pennsylvania Council for the Blind and fill out their registration form with no problem. I was able to navigate Facebook as well and many other websites much easier than using windows. Vinux has come along way and the distrubution is getting better all the time another distribution I also like is Sonar which is also very good with acessibility as well. It’s another distibution of Ubuntu 1304 and it is GNU linux as well, upi can find Sonar at http://www.sonar-project.org well written article.

  2. Great article Josh. I used the AppleII product line back in the day, and then in 1995 my parents got me my first PC as a high-school graduation gift. It ran mainly in DOS, but I did try to tinker around with the version of Windows that was on there. I think this was Windows version 3.1 . I’ve been a Windows user ever since, with the exception of high school when I was given a Toshiba laptop outfitted with speech. It had its own operating system, which now that I think about it might’ve been something akin to Linux but I’m not positive. Anyway, Windows has worked well for me for the most part. I say for the most part because I’m not that good at trouble-shooting computer issues, which I’ve been experiencing now for over a month. But I digress. Perhaps I’d like to expand my horizons a bit and try out VoiceOver and Orca, but for the time being I’m happy with Windows. I’m excited for the future of Serotek, and I’m also thrilled with what the NV Access Foundation has done with NVDA.

  3. This article is too high-level to be informative. Yes, there are Linux screen reader solutions. Yes, there are apps to do many things that can be done with other operating systems. None of that is new.

    What would have been useful is if you would have talked about what features worked well, and which did not. For example, Many blind Linux distros have had problems in the past with using speech and sound at the same time through a single sound card. Is that different now? In the office suite, how well is Orca able to track/announce formatting styles, embedded objects like tables and forms, and so on. When using the web, how does the experience compare to FF/IE on Windows?

    Simply saying that it works and is great isn’t useful, as we all know that there are always areas where it does not work, and isn’t so great, no matter the operating system and adaptive tech.

  4. Orca works very well from an end-user’s prospective. I’ll write up a list of things orca does well and rate them from 1 to 10 10 being the best accessibility and 1 being no accessibility at all.
    firefox, rating nine. Works great with forms on the internet. I can use ebay, paypal, my phone.com phone company website, amazon, and more. Vinux is designed so in most cases I can use websites better and faster than I can on windows.
    thunderbird mail, rating nine. You have to change one or two things in preferences and then it works great. I have messages open in a new window. thunderbird also has a calendar addon called lightning which is very accessible. lightning calendar, rating 9.
    libreoffice calc-spreadsheet, writer-word equivalent, rating nine. Both on the web and in libreofice there are commands for table navigation. and with libreoffice like jaws, orca has quick navigation keys. You can set Orca to tell you as much information about formatting as you wish. Orca is like window-eyes in that its hotkeys are completely customiseable. With NVDA you have to edit files and making or changeing hotkeys is considered very advanced with NVDA. not so with orca. With Orca just go to the keybindings tab, arrow down to the hotkey you want changed, right arrow over to key combination, hit spacebar, press the new hotkey, hit enter to confirm, tab to ok hit spacebar and you’re done. similar to window-eyes.
    sound themes manager, rating, four. Mostly accessible but the buttons are not labeled so you don’t know what you’re pressing when you hit enter on the buttons to add remove or edit sound themes.
    handbrake, rating 10. rips audio from dvds and is also an audio converter.
    disk utility. rating 10. lets you ormat disks and eject cds and dvds, mount and unmount drives. to mount a drive just means make it ready for the computer to use. unmount means turn the drive off and stop using it completely, until you hit the mount button. you would unmount a drive to remove an external hard drive or flash drive.
    Vinux sound works great. USB headphones with mics have no issues working. I can use the internal laptop speakers or external speakers. And I can listen to music or internet radio and record it to mp3 if I want using rhythmbox. I can adjust volume of speech and music independently of each other. speech can be louder than music or I can make the music or radio louder than the speech.
    system settings, like windows control panel. rating 10. works great.
    When I press insert f for font Orca tells me all the information about the formatting I need to know and even that can be customised using the Orca preferences dialog box. Insert space brings that up. for app specific settings its insert control space.

  5. I found an addon for NVDA called google speech recognition. It lets you dictate text and paste it into documents. You need an internet connection because the google servers do the speech to text processing. I would love it if this were also available for vinux.

  6. I found a new speech recognizer for linux called palaver. When I get a USB headset with mic I’ll try it out but it may not be accessible because a button turns a certain color when you can speak into the mic. Palaver’s accessibility may need improveing and I am unsure if it uses google as its speech recognizer.

  7. Can i just download Ubuntu and Vinux from the internet?
    What do i have to do when i have a computer with windows on it?
    Would you suggest removing Windows from my spare laptop and loading Vinux on it?
    How does the virtual machine work?

  8. This post inspired me to install ubuntu on a laptop with no working screen and too old to run any other Windows than XP. Having difficulty doing the number one thing I do with PCs, that being listening to streaming audio. Installed VLc and RhythmBox for this purpose. Must I actually copy mp3 files to the linux box so it will then get the codecs. Is there not something like K-Lite Codecs for Linux to ensure it plays all audio and video thrown at it. I have had this issue with every version of Linux I have played with and is likely what has kept me from adopting it as a viable alternative to Windows. The other thing of course would be the voice. Eloquence orh the IBM variant in SAPI4 would go a long way as well.

  9. you can install mp3 playback and a bunch of other codecs permanently by using software center to install the ubuntu restricted extras package.

  10. I put vinux on my macbook pro using vmware fusion, and ran into a weird issue where caps lock can’t be used as the modifier key for orca for some reason. No one seems to have a fix for that as far as I can tell. That is partially fixed by plugging in a USB keyboard, clumsy but doable. I seemed to have issues navigating certain websites like cnn and facebook with firefox, but that could just be my limited exposure to it or perhaps I didn’t give the system enouGh ram. If I can change the modifier key to something else not in that dropdown box I might be willing to give it another try. Perhaps the tilde key?

  11. I’ve used various flavors of Linux for over ten years and have a love-hate relationship with it. My problem with Orca is that when it reads well it’s wonderful. But if it sees nothing to read, you cannot use a mouse cursor, or an invisible cursor, nor a virtual cursor nor any other method to explore the screen and try to figure out what Orca is missing. I always fool for a while with some graphical program, get frustrated, and go back to good old Speakup and the command line. And one thing many readers might not realize is that Orca makes Gnome, just one of many window managers accessible. I administer a home server which runs MythTV for my family. MythTV is a PVR that costs nothing and works a lot better than commercial products like TiVo. But unfortunately, I cannot access the MythTV interface because it insists on running under a different, and inaccessible window manager. For me, playing with my Raspberry Pi using the command line is just a heck of a lot more fun.

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