Most accessible: Ubuntu MATE

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.

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7 thoughts on “Most accessible: Ubuntu MATE

  1. hi micheal i’ve installed ubuntu mate, but the desktop is not accessible, i cannot enter folders with gui, is it possible to make it accessible? thanks

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    • My experience is that the GUI file manager is difficult to use with a screenreader and personally I prefer using the command line (terminal).

      If you want to use the GUI, try this:
      1. Make sure that the desktop is focussed (press ctrl+alt+d if it isn’t)
      2. Select your home folder icon with the arrow keys. By default it’s the first icon on the desktop and you can get to it by pressing the down arrow once.
      3. Press the enter key to open your home folder.
      4. Use the arrow keys to move around the icons in your home folder. At first there will be no icon selected, so press the down arrow once to select the first icon, then you can move between the icons with the arrow keys.
      5. Press the enter key to open another icon.
      6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 to navigate through each folder.

      Tips:
      * Use the backspace key to navigate to the parent folder. After navigating to the parent folder, the icon corresponding to the child folder from which you have come will be selected.
      * Open the context menu with the context menu key (to the left of the right-hand control key) to perform actions on the selected item. You can also get to this by pressing shift+f10.
      * Pressing ctrl+f10 will open the context menu for the current folder, rather than the selected item. This lets you create child folders.
      * Typing the first letters of an icon’s name and then pressing the enter key will open it (or the first matching icon if there is more than one match). Pressing the escape key rather than the enter key will return to the icon list, with the first matching icon selected.

      If you prefer, you can use list view:
      1. Press alt+e to open the edit menu.
      2. Press n to get the preferences.
      3. Press the the tab key once to get to the “view new folders using” combo box.
      4. Press the down arrow key once to change the combo box to “list view”.
      5. Press the escape key to close the preferences.

      You can also change the columns shown in the list view:
      1. Press alt+e to open the edit menu.
      2. Press n to get the preferences.
      3. Press the right arrow key three times to get to the “list columns” tab.
      4. Press the down arrow key twice to get to the list of columns.
      5. Move up and down the list with the arrow keys. Press the space bar to toggle items between checked and unchecked. If an item is unchecked, the corresponding column won’t be shown in the list view.
      6. Press the escape key to close the preferences.

      Now you can navigate up and down the list of items with the arrow keys, and expand them to view child items with the right arrow key (collapse with the left arrow key). Unfortunately the screenreader doesn’t announce what level (parent, child, child of a child, etc.) items are at. As before you can open items by pressing the enter key.

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  2. hey micheal , great article, it’s a topic often missed in the discussion about Linux OSs. You wrote “I heard that familiar electronic, somewhat distorted, voice…”, do you know if there are any better TTS engines with the ability to load different language files e.g. somewhat like the TTS engines on Android (it’s not necessary that the language files for the TTS are free of charge)?

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    • There’s really nothing wrong with the default espeak synthesiser; my description of the voice was mainly for literary effect rather than intending to be a true reflection of the sound of the voice. It’s not comparable to Eloquence, however, although those that do use it say it’s one of the easiest synthesisers to understand (it’s clearer than Eloquence, due to focussing more on clarity rather than a natural sound). If you’re using Windows and want to get a sample of how espeak sounds, try the NVDA screenreader – it uses espeak too.

      If you want a more natural-sounding synthesiser, though, try the festival speech synthesiser. It’s more complicated to set up but I did manage to get it working fairly reliably with Orca at one time and there are loads of natural-sounding voices to choose from, both free and commercial.

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    • Forgot to mention in my previous reply that if you’re looking for different languages, espeak has that. In the Orca (screenreader) configuration you can choose from a wide range of languages for espeak.

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  3. Hi Micheal…thank you for this informative post. How would you rate Debian and Fedoras in terms of accessibility, compared to Ubuntu Mate? Are they just as good as Ubuntu Mate? Debian seems to have very good documentation regarding accessibility in its installer and system. You also have Sonar Linux which has been tailor-made for better accessibility. Let me know your thoughts. Thanks…

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    • As Ubuntu is based on Debian, one could theoretically set up a Debian system with Orca (the screenreader) and a compatible desktop environment (of which, based on my experiences with Ubuntu MATE, I would recommend the MATE desktop environment). It is possible to install Debian without sight by enabling TTS output for the installer by pressing a special key combination when booting from the installation media (I can’t remember what combination it is offhand), although Orca isn’t (as far as I’m aware) installed with the MATE desktop environment by default so you will need sighted assistance to install it after rebooting into the installed system.

      I’ve heard good things about Fedora’s accessibility but I cannot say anything more here as I have never used Fedora, with or without a screenreader.

      As with Vinux, I would advise against Sonar Linux. I haven’t tried it myself, but I researched it a while ago and found that, as with Vinux, it’s really just an ordinary Debian/Ubuntu-based system with a pre-configured large font size and missing a few applications that don’t work with Orca. It’s better to install a more mainstream distro that’s accessible out of the box, such as Ubuntu MATE.

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