Originally Published: Friday, 21 July 2000 Author: JP Schnapper-Casteras
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

The Potential of Open Source for the Visually Impaired

Current Open Source software for the blind is immensely better than the closed source, non-free products currently available. The efforts of the Linux community, as well as other projects focusing on software to make Linux accessible, are generous and their results are substantial.

Adaptive technologies for the visually impaired can be life-changing devices. They have the potential to narrow the physical limitations of blindness and low vision through equal access to information and digital communication. Despite their positive possible effects, adaptive equipment can also be a waste of money, time, and effort if it is prohibitively expensive or poorly designed (in a way that makes impaired users dependent on sighted assistance).

These devices may be similarly ineffective if their design and the software that powers them are created and released in a spirit that inhibits intellectual growth and freedom -- the intended original purpose of the technology. In other words, the equipment defeats the initial goals of its inventors if the software and design of the system are are not freely available, free in terms of cost and as in free speech. Hardware cannot be freely available in the same manner that software and intellectual property can be, because it is a physical entity and manufactured product that is not reproducible, but it can be chosen to minimize costs for the purchaser.

My primary disagreements with current adaptive technology -- its high price, dependence on sighted assistance, and lack of freedom -- are confirmed by several sources.

The BLYNX site states, "Why the prevalence of obsolete screen access equipment? 1. Adaptive equipment is, by its very nature, extremely, and often prohibitively [sic], expensive. It is not uncommon for a blind individual to spend twice as much on the adaptive equipment that enables him or her to use a computer than he or she did on the computer itself. And while the price of computer hardware decreases over time, the price of adaptive equipment -- especially software -- has steadily increased. 2. The state-of-the-art in DOS-based screen-access wasn't achieved until 1993/1994, just in time for obsolescence. But, what with the 70% unemployment rate amongst the blind, not everyone has/had the 495-595 clams it costs to purchase a state of the art DOS-based screen reader."

Prices from National Federation of the Blind Computer Resource List show the following price ranges. DOS software: $79 to $723. Programs for use with the Graphical User Interface: $495 to $3,000. Miscellaneous Software and Devices: $150 to $10,000. Software-Based Voice Synthesizers: $80 to $249. Hardware-Based Voice Synthesizers: Range: $129.95 to $1,295.

These prices are all in addition to the expense of a computer and sometimes of training, an example of dependence on sighted assistance and perhaps poor design. This high cost truly does matter in the real world; when speaking to a friend who is currently special education teacher, she described how the blind girl she tutors rarely uses a computer. She went on to say that this infrequent usage was not due to any lack of educational material online, but because the equipment was outdated and slow and that new technology was too expensive to buy.

From my own experiences with vision therapy, I remember the outdated nature of simple exercises done on a computer and thought about how much more easily and efficiently the exercises could be done if not for the cost of new equipment.

The high cost of new equipment is completely due to two factors: non-free software and poor choices in choosing the cheapest hardware. The first factor, non-free software, is the result of a method of software development based on proprietary source code and charging for the software (without another means of freely obtaining it) that I believe to be inherently flawed.

The right to access information -- in Braille format at a library, in closed captions on television, or on the Internet -- is a fundamental one. Just as the services provided at the library or performed by television stations are free of charge, software that allows the visually impaired, or anyone, to obtain information stored digitally should also be without cost. Why restrict any person's means to communicate freely and to acquire information, and hopefully knowledge, let alone that of someone with sensory limitations?

I concede that some hardware devices are simply expensive to produce and I realize that software developers need to eat. I do not mean to criticize any of the companies or inventors who advance computer accessibility for those with visual impairments. I only mean to suggest that there is a better, cheaper, freer model of developing adaptive software and hardware solutions.

Current Open Source software for the blind is immensely better than the closed source, non-free products currently available. The efforts of the Linux community, as well as other projects focusing on software to make Linux accessible, are generous and their results are substantial. Unfortunately, the free software for Linux that provides access to the visually impaired is either based on expensive hardware, dependent on sighted assistance, or unnecessarily complex in its interaction with the user.

The dependence on sighted assistance is confirmed by BLINUX's FAQ, which states:

3.2 Q: Can I install Linux without sighted assistance?
A: It depends... If you have a second computer or other device that you can use as a terminal, you might be able to install...

3.3 Q: Can I install Red Hat eyes free?
A: At present, it's not too practical, unless modified somehow, to install eyes free. Perhaps you get someone to tell you what's on the screen during the installation. ...If you are a novice, forget I mentioned it.

3.4 Q: Which Linux distribution is best for a blind user?
A: There is no single answer to this question..."

Other software packages that permit the blind to partially or almost fully use Linux's command line (text console, not graphical) can only be used if the rest of the system, including the software itself, was installed by a sighted person.

Zipspeak, a version of Zipslack, which is in turn a derivative of Slackware, is superior in terms of dependence on sighted assistance, but it nonetheless requires one of a dozen hardware synthesizers in addition to a computer, all of which needlessly add to the system cost and are not readily available at a local computer store.

A list of speech synthesizers is shown on the Zipspeak site. From the prices shown on the National Federation of the Blind Computer Resource List, the hardware required can range from $395 to $1,195.

In an article at Slashdot entitled "Interview: Answers About Blind Computer Use," Curtis Chung, Directory of Technology for the National Federation of the Blind, voiced his opinion on the potential of current and future Open Source software in the field of adaptive technology.

[Q] What can we (the "Open Source Community") do to make our solutions (Linux/BSD/whatever) the #1 computer solution for blind users?
[A by Mr.Chung] In order for Linux to be the number one solution for the blind, it must be as widely accepted as Windows in the workplace. Unless or until that happens, Linux may be useful for some blind individuals at home, but we, the blind, must insist on having access to the applications used by our sighted peers at work."

Although I respect Mr.Chung's work and opinion, I respectfully disagree with this particular assertion. Saying "Linux must be widely accepted or used by everyone in order to succeed at work" is similar to the situation several years ago when people said, "Macs and PCs in the same environment will be a disaster" or "Using two word processors at the same office will spell certain doom."

It is clear that once certain compatibility issues are overcome, different architectures, operating systems, word processors, and other software can coexist effectively, and certainly without the deadlocked technological impasse that Mr. Chung seems to suggest.

There are many business, schools, and even software development firms which use several different operating systems and several different tools, and they all manage to go on with their business quite well. Everyone uses software differently, including the visually impaired, so the most effective computer environment is one in which everyone is comfortable, not one in which all software is homogeneous.

I believe that with the Open Source development process and a collective effort on the part of talented software developers who are willing to donate their time, a solution for the aforementioned problems can be reached.

I ask you,administrators, developers, and users alike, to join and integrate your projects into a complete Linux distribution named "Ocularis" (Latin for "of the eyes"). Ocularis will consist of free software from other projects that is woven together with new, original software to create a simple, straightforward, consistent Audio User Interface (AUI). The distribution is released under the GNU General Public License, will utilize the Linux kernel, and may also support Braille displays and other third party hardware. The target, fully functional computer system, with the complete Ocularis distribution will execute smoothly on easily obtainable hardware costing less than $500.

I hope you will join me in this project. Ocularis is currently in the planning stage of development, so any ideas and responses would be appreciated. If you are interested please visit the Ocularis web site.

JP Schnapper-Casteras