A first listen to Vinux

The user Womple suggested that we try Vinux for the next challenge. Vinux is a distro aimed at visually impaired users, and this is an area I’ve been asked to look at a few times. So far I’ve always stayed away from it, not because I don’t think it’s an interesting or useful area, but because I don’t feel qualified to comment on it as I’m not visually impaired myself, and don’t happen to know anyone who is who could help me out.

This time though, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give it a go without waiting for the next challenge to arrive. It would, perhaps, be most appropriate to try this fully blindfolded, but it turns out that my touch-typing skills aren’t that good and I quickly became lost in a sea of buttons. Since this isn’t a test of my typing skills, I just turned off the display.

Vinux booted into the Try Linux / Install Linux screen that will be familiar to anyone who’s used a Ubuntu live CD, but with Orca screen reader running. This software takes the screen and reads out the contents (apparently there’s also Braille support as well, but I don’t have the hardware to test this). It doesn’t just read out the whole screen though, but the part that currently has the focus.

I decided to ditch the mouse entirely as I just couldn’t work out what was going on, and instead relied solely on keyboard navigation to move around. After one false start where my keyboard bashing managed to scramble the user interface requiring a reboot, installation went fairly smoothly. Using tabs, navigating the window was fairly painless, and each control had a small number of options, each of which had a small amount of clear and concise text.

Orca guided me through the install process and I got up and running without resorting to switching on the display. It took a little while to get used to Orca’s proununciation, but after a bit of use, it was easy enough to understand. I must admit that I’ve installed so many Ubuntu derivatives over the years that I know the installer inside out, and perhaps it would have been more difficult I wasn’t so familiar with the process. Creating a custom partition setup would probably have been quite challenging, but I wimped out and just wiped the drive.

So far so good…

…but then the computer seemed to hang when it should be rebooting. Eventually, I cheated and snuck a look at the screen where I saw it was telling me to take the disk out and press enter to continue. Since this was done in text-mode, the screen reader didn’t pick it up. From then on, I had regular problems of not knowing when the computer was expecting input. Sometimes a tab then shift-tab would let me know what was under the current focus which helped, other times (like this one) that wouldn’t.

Things didn’t get much better when the machine restarted. Again it seemed to hang until I snuck another look at the screen. Orca doesn’t start until the user is logged there’s no sound to help the user through the log in screen. In hindsight, the installer does have the option to log in automatically, so you could get around this if you knew how.

Vinux, is based on Unity. For all the complaints people have about its look, it did seem to work well with the screen reader. You just have to tap Alt then type what software you want, then Tab and use the arrow keys to select the right option.

There is more to Vinux than Orca. It also has larger pointers and a high contrast colour scheme to help people with limited eyesight. Again, Unity seems to work well with this. The big, bold icons are probably the clearest of those on any distro. Underneath this, it’s a fairly typical Ubuntu 12.04 setup, so everything you’d expect from a Linux desktop is available, though the default install is a little spartan with, for example, no office suite.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t have any experience of navigating through sound, but I found it almost impossible to do any sort of real work using just the screen reader. Most GUIs were just too complex for me to make sense of, even in software I was already familiar with.

The experience felt like trying to navigate a maze blindfolded. I carefully moved the focus around listening for hints as to where I was, and desperately trying to remember the minutiae of how the screen was laid out.

The more I used it, the more I felt that every GUI designer should try this on their software. Not just to make the program better for visually impaired people (though this is of course reason enough on its own), but because it makes you think much more about the layout and options. If you can use an application by sound alone, they you’ve probably got a sensible structure. If not then you need to ask yourself if there’s too much on each page and would it, perhaps, be easier to use if some options were tidied away. The Ubuntu installer was a good example of how the two co-incide. I doubt it was deliberately designed for a screen reader, but because it’s been split up into simple steps with clear instructions, it naturally worked well with Orca.

In my highly uninformed opinion, then, Vinux is a great addition for people who can see, but struggle to make out the detail on the screen. Especially for things like reading large chunks of text. However, it’s probably not yet suitable for users with no eyesight, not because of the tools themselves, but because few applications are designed with this use in mind. A Braille output may change this, but we don’t have the hardware to test this on.

As I said at the start, this isn’t my area of expertise, so over to you, dear readers. If you’ve got any experience of this, let us know in the comments what worked well and what didn’t.

If there are any other areas of free software that you think we’d be interested, drop a note in the comments and we’ll have a look.


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