When it comes to computer systems for persons with physical disabilities, Linux has something of an image problem. It's usually not a first choice -- most of the time, it's not even considered as a distant last resort. Naturally, the Open Source community is working hard to change this perception problem.In part, the problem is one of numbers: Closed-source operating systems like Windows tend to have more accessibility options available, including commercial software that can be found at the local computer store. Look closer, and you'll discover that much of what's available has a very narrow focus, designed to perform specific tasks.
There are fewer programs available for Linux users with disabilities, but as any Open Source proponent would point out, much of it is freely available, highly configurable to meet individual needs, and in many cases, extensible to meet needs that its developers may not have predicted. In other words, it's a matter of quantity vs. quality.
What accessibility solutions are out there, and what's looming over the horizon?
Emacs is one of the most popular applications to be found on any UNIX or UNIX-like system. Emacspeak makes this Swiss Army knife of applications accessible to anyone with a pair of speakers. The program doesn't restrict how the user chooses to make use of Emacs -- anything that program can do, Emacspeak can keep up, reading back anything that appears on the screen.
Developed at the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Speech Technology, Festival is an all-purpose multi-lingual speech synthesis program. At the present time, Festival can speak in English (with your choice of British or American accents), Spanish, and Welsh. Festival doesn't just spit out the words, it says them with the proper pronunciation, as a native would.
There's a quite obvious section of the accessibility market that can't be served by a speech synthesis or voice recognition product, no matter how good they are.
Since 1996, the developers behind BRLTTY have provided access to the Linux text console for visual and hearing impaired user community. The program works in conjunction with a soft Braille display, providing tactile feedback for what Linux displays on the screen. BRLTTY's developers claim that the program works with most major Linux distributions, and of course, its Braille translation table can be configured to display special characters that might be needed.
IBM bills ViaVoice as the "easy, natural way to communicate with your PC." Long available as a Windows tool, ViaVoice provides the traditional text-to-speech options featured in other programs, as well as voice input capabilities for users who are unable to use a traditional keyboard.
Unlike other programs, ViaVoice has a very rigid set of hardware and distribution requirements: Red Hat 6.2 or similar, running on a Pentium 233MHz with 256 L2 cache and 128MB of RAM (or better, of course). These requirements probably won't scare away its desired audience, many of whom may be eager to purchase an all-in-one package.
On the horizon
Interested in the future of accessibility options? Go west, young user.
This March, assistive technology developers, advocates, educators, and policy makers will meet in Los Angeles for the 16th Annual Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference. This conference is hosted by the Center on Disabilities California State University, Northridge.
Taking place during this event is the Linux Accessibility Conference, which aims to demonstrate the potential of Linux and free software in the accessibility arena. Scheduled speakers include Peter Korn of Sun's GNOME Accessibility lab, Emacspeak creator T.V. Raman, and Festival creator Alan Black.
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