6 reasons Linux is the right choice for people with disabilities

6 reasons people with disabilities should use Linux

Posted 20 Apr 2015 by 

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Often, when issues of accessibility and assistive technology are brought up among people with disabilities, the topics center around the usual issues: How can I afford this device? Is it available for me? Will it meet my needs? How will I receive support?

Open source solutions, including any Linux-based operating system, are rarely, if ever, considered. The problem isn't with the solution; instead, it is a result of lack of information and awareness of FOSS and GNU/Linux in the disability community, and even among people in general. Here are six solid reasons people with disabilities should consider using Linux:

Customization and modification

Assistive technology has come a long way from its not-so-distant past; however, proprietary devices are limited in their ability to conform and adapt to their users. Few mainstream solutions are available, and even fewer are unlocked, able to be modified at the lower levels. Being able to take existing technology and adapt it to suit one's needs—rather than forcing a person to adapt to the device and/or software—is a strength of open source software and Linux, and is extremely important for those who rely on a device to accomplish what others take for granted every day.

A few years ago, for example, I worked on a grant project in my hometown. Part of the project was to loan netbooks to students with disabilities who showed significant leadership potential. One of the students really enjoyed using the netbook's webcam to take pictures; however, the operating system loaded on the device used text, not images, to differentiate between files and folders. Without being able to read the path to the folder where the webcam saved images, they were not able to find them.

After some discussion, I switched out the operating system for Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which had an easy-to-use GUI and, more importantly, an icon set that used symbols to identify what was contained in the folders: a filmstrip for videos, a music note for sound files, a letter for documents, and a square photo (like a Polaroid) for images. That's all it took—a simple change in icons and the barrier that prevented full use was eliminated.

Stability, reliability, and durability

Whether you rely on a text-to-speech program to communicate with others, a device that assists those who are blind in navigation, a speech-to-text application that assists in typing and input, or something else essential to your daily life, the thing you rely on can't be fragile nor easily broken. A stable platform that can survive extended durations of uptime without freezing, locking up, or crashing is a must. The same kernel that's used to power the world's servers is an obvious choice to keep someone's accessible device running when it's needed most.

Compatibility with obsolete or old hardware

Proprietary assistive technology devices—especially when addressing more severe disabilities—often run on older, dated hardware. Even if one is able to obtain a current version of the software they need, that doesn't always mean the hardware they own will be able to run it. Through Linux, however, an aging device can be rejuvenated, and the person with a disability won't have to constantly upgrade their hardware. This reduces cost, both in time to learn and adapt to new hardware and in monetary expense.

Control and full ownership

For future assistive technology devices to be fully accessible, the software and the device in use must be changeable and adapt to the individual, instead of forcing a change in the individual's ability to adapt to an able world. By having access to the code, people with disabilities are able to inspect and ensure that the software they are using is under their control and working for them. This access also reduces problems with privacy and security, which is doubly important when the device one relies upon handles nearly all of your sensitive data. Without ownership and full control, any benefit an assistive technology device provides is constrained and leveraged against the company that produced it, unfulfilling the assumed purpose of its programming. All of us want the hardware and software we paid for to work for us based on our demands and needs, and people with disabilities are no different.

Assistance from a large, international community

Many of us know the pain of trying to obtain assistance for a proprietary device or program, waiting on the phone and getting only limited help. This becomes even worse when trying to solve an issue with an assistive technology device; support is limited, there are often few or no brick-and-mortar retailers that will replace your device, and due to its unique, locked-in configuration, there are few local individuals who can troubleshoot and solve such problems. When you use Linux, the entire Internet is your resource. Forums, IRC/chat rooms, online videos and tutorials, and more options are all available to guide anyone—from the most novice of beginners to experience veterans of the sysadmin worldthrough nearly any difficulty. One notable advantage here is that when someone posts a question or describes a recent headache on the web, countless other people learn about it, and some of them may be asking the same question.

Fun

The fact is, Linux is fun. The thrill of shaping, molding, and customizing a system to individual needs is profound. Showing others what you've put together is just part of it; showing how you did it and how they can too is an integral part of the open-source community. Who wouldn't want to be included in that?

7 Comments

kendell clark

This is exactly the kind of article we need to stir up interest in foss accessibility. I've been struggling with this very task, meeting with limited results from windows addicted blind users. It's encouraging to see that people haven't given up on linux. I've made a commitment to helping linux become more accessible and be an obvious choice for blind people everywhere.

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imbecile

WTF?
Sorry to say it, but instead of pointing out OS commonplaces what about some real benefits for handicapped?
Give me some good example where ?x is above its competitors. Most people with disabilities are exactly the ones spending hours in front of a screen to find the way they want to treat a desktop. Yes!

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rfreed

@Kendell Clark:

Thank you for your kind words - we're definitely not giving up; Linux and open-source can do so much, we just have to put in the work and encourage involvement from people with disabilities.

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rfreed

@imbecile:

OS commonplaces? Hmm. Last time I checked neither of the big-name proprietary OSes had multiple desktop environments available. High contrast, maybe; but not much else. I don't think their source code is open for all to see, either.

This article wasn't about how a specific FOSS AT application was better than others, but what benefits there are to people with disabilities using Linux.

Also, I would appreciate it if you'd not use the word 'handicapped' to describe those us with disabilities - it's an old, antiquated and obsolete term that is not only offensive but marginalizing and discriminatory as well.

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LinuxGoat

I have an autistic adult son, who used to really struggle trying to use computers. His schools always used Windows, so his machine at home also ran Windows. (The rest of the family was always Linux)
After he left school, I changed his machines over to Linux. Now, though he's on the level of a 5 year old, he can do everything he wants on his machines. I showed him how to use Audacity, Gimp, and Openshot and he now spends his days creating his own animated cartoons. He was never comfortable with computers until he started using Linux. Even better, is my ability to maintain his machines by using SSH, so I never have to interrupt him for software updates!

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kendell clark

handicap? I missed that one. I couldn't decide whether he was disabled or not, but that's beside the point. I'm in the process of writing an article that's going to go here, as soon as whoever's looking at it has time to review it, but I've referred anyone reading it here to this one. One of the core problems facing disabled linux users, isn't any problem with linux, but the fact that accessibility, whether that be hardware development, or software, is highly specialized. You can't take anyone in off the street, sit them down at a terminal and tell them to "write me a screen reader" You've got five thousand bucks if you can do it in a week. Give me uncrackable encryption and plenty of legalese. It would be a disaster. Back on point, the dev community for accessibility is very small. A handful of people. One or two screen reader people, one or two at-spi people, one gtk person, a couple maybe working in qt, and that's about it. Specialized applications for blind people, the ones that usually cost thousands of dollars, scanning applications with their incomprehensible shortcuts, natural tts voices people get into fistfights over, etc don't exist here. No one has written them. We need more developers to write those applications. The programs that are hear, a large part are accessible. Some are not, and that needs fixing. I've had just about enough of comments like this last one. I summed it up as: Snort! Why would you possibly use something that inferior? I love my "insert platform here" It drips disdain, and has absolutely no part here. You don't like linux? Fine, go to another forum, one that's devoted to idalizing your OS of choice, and Stay out of our way. And just to spit in your eye, because now you've irritated me, Windows has a what you could call basic screen reader. It works, with some programs, but not many, and not well. It has a magnifier, have no idea how well it works, but those that use it tell me they have to install another, always proprietary, magnifier to get any real use out of their computer. I think it has high contrast, it's got the ability to trap keypresses, it's got the ability to use the number pad for mouse control. It's problem is in it's attitude. We're complying with minimum government regulations, the entire OS screams. You want better, pay up or download something else. Yes, I'm well aware of nvda, the screen reader that's taken the world by storm. It's great, and I use it when I have to use windows. But that wasn't the point. This is about why linux is good for people who are disabled, whether that be visual, physical, or ... does linux have any software for mental ones? I'm not familiar with that much. It can always use improving, but until government departments stop ... nice way to put it ... taking the easy way out is the nicest I can come up with, linux will have issues, usually with hardware drivers for USB synthesizers. I believe braille displays are universally supported now, and have been for years now. I'm done, but I hate two sentence comments like that. No logic to them, just, wtf? @imbicil, your comment is what's wrong with most disabled people on windows. It summarizes it. About apple, I've no idea, nor do I care, I don't use one.

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jonathon

The major problem with Linux, for those with accessibility issues, is the complete lack of training and support for those users. It doesn't matter if one uses a distro that focuses on those with a11y needs, or a general purpose distro.

A second, related issue, is that Services for the Blind, and similar federal and state agencies, don't provide training for any FLOSS software. Virtually all of the firms that provide software/hardware support & training to the accessibility population do so, because of government contracts. A firm that focused on accessibility and FLOSS wouldn't get any government contracts, and probably won't be able to financially survive, even at the standard rates in the accessibility field. (I'll skip the issue of how many individuals can afford those standard rates.)

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Photo of Spencer sitting at coffee shop counter reading a newspaper and smiling.

Spencer Hunley is an autistic professional, open-source assistive technology enthusiast, and advocate for people with disabilities. He has presented at LinuxCon 2013 and 2014, giving talks about including people with disabilities in the Linux community, how accessible and assistive technology would benefit from more Linux and open-source contributions, and how people with disabilities can be an asset for the Linux and open source communities.
He is currently a fellow moderator for