Yes, that’s right. The most accessible Linux distro that I’ve used so far is not Vinux, a purpose-built Ubuntu remix designed for blind users. Neither is it the standard Ubuntu with the Unity desktop environment. It’s Ubuntu MATE.
But why? Well, let’s start with standard Ubuntu. The Orca screenreader works out of the box and is easily launched with a simple keyboard combination (alt+winkey+s for those who are interested), and pretty much all of the installed software works nicely with it, including LibreOffice which relies on a bridge between Java and the Linux ATK framework for Orca to work with it. The only thing which doesn’t work nicely with the screenreader is… the desktop itself. Switching between multiple windows of the same application in the Unity desktop environment ideally requires one to see the thumbnails of the windows. Pinning and rearranging items in the launcher is impossible without the mouse (or at least so difficult that even I can’t figure it out). Let’s not even mention the dash – it crashed the screenreader every time I tried it.
Now I’ll tell you a secret about Vinux: it’s really just Ubuntu under a different name. You’d think that it’s been “tweaked” a little to make it more accessible – in fact that’s what they claim on their website – but actually it hasn’t. Short of being configured with a different wallpaper and login sound, a larger mouse pointer, and a screenreader that starts up by default rather than by pressing a key combination, there’s pretty much no difference between Vinux and Ubuntu. It’s got the same Unity desktop environment with the same accessibility issues as standard Ubuntu. Furthermore, for some reason LibreOffice isn’t installed by default and it doesn’t work with the screenreader when one installs it from the package repositories – the latter of which are almost completely broken due to numerous mis-matched package versions which prevent apt from installing additional packages that depend on them. In short, Vinux is a hacked-up Ubuntu system that doesn’t offer any genuine advantage in terms of accessibility for blind users.
So then, what’s so great about Ubuntu MATE for blind users? Well, in the days when GNOME 2 was still around, it was pretty much all that a blind Linux user could ever want in a desktop environment. It was fast, simple, and everything could be accessed from the keyboard and read out by the screenreader without getting in the way when it wasn’t needed. But, of course, GNOME 2 isn’t around anymore, and the modern continuation of the project is MATE. I’ve used MATE before with Linux Mint, but for some reason the Orca screenreader doesn’t work with Linux Mint out of the box, and it took a heck of a lot of hacking to get it to work and even then it crashed every five minutes. Nevertheless the elegance of the MATE desktop never ceased to amaze me, both as a sighted and as a blind user, and for a month or two my secondary hacked-up Mint install was my main Linux system for when I was pretending to be blind.
For a number of completely unrelated reasons, I decided that I would like to try the new Ubuntu MATE remix. Of course, judging from my experience with Linux Mint, I wasn’t expecting the screenreader to work nicely at all as I had assumed that the trouble was caused by the few internal differences between MATE and the original GNOME 2 project. But I was wrong…
I was surprised when I saw that the Orca screenreader was included by default with Ubuntu MATE, although that was in some ways to be expected as Orca is included by default with all of the Ubuntu flavours but that doesn’t mean that it actually works at all. Nevertheless I hit the magic key combination and in a few seconds I heard that familiar electronic, somewhat distorted, voice that I have listened to for hours on end at my computer. The screenreader was talking, and let’s face it, that’s better than Linux Mint that required three hacks just to get it to talk never mind read anything that was on the screen. So I hit alt+f1 to open the applications menu, as the applications menu usually doesn’t work properly if the screenreader has not connected to the desktop environment correctly. The applications menu popped open, while at the same time the screenreader drawled “top expanded edge panel frame applications menu accessories submenu” – it was working beautifully!
And it’s worked beautifully ever since. Firefox works, LibreOffice works, the terminal works, everything works. Speech dispatcher hasn’t crashed once, despite being notorious for crashing in the past (although that may be because the software is a later version to what I’ve used before – there are a few more nice integrations between Firefox and Orca as well, specifically the “browse/focus mode” feature which has been available since the first versions of JAWS on Windows but has long been missing on Linux systems). In short, Ubuntu MATE combines the excellent accessibility support of Ubuntu with a desktop environment that’s easy to navigate without sight, making it pretty much perfect for a blind user and definitely better than any of the specialised “accessible” distros that I’ve read about and/or tried.