One of the most common questions I'm asked by a disabled prospective Linux user is, "There are so many different Linux distributions. Which one is for me? Which one is most accessible?"
This is a valid question, and one that hasn't been answered very often. Fortunately, like many things with Linux, there are ready-made solutions that will meet most users needs, and they're all just a download away. In this article, I'll explain how to install Linux and give a review of eight accessible Linux distributions, or distros as they are commonly called.
- Distros made specifically for the blind and disabled
- Distros with accessibility software built in, it only needs to be enabled
- Distros primarily intended for users who do not wish to use a graphical desktop (these are text-based)
This article does not go into an abundance of technical detail, and hopes to primarily help those new to linux or considering making the switch. In particular, it does not cover what these Linux distributions are based on, what kernel versions each distribution comes with, etc. All Linux distributions listed in this article are completely open source, free of charge, and may be installed on as many computers as you want. I have deliberately left out those distributions that do not come with accessibility software. In such a distribution, a disabled user has to both know what software they need and the commands to install it, which are often different depending on the distribution. Thus, Linux Mint is excluded from this list. OpenSUSE is absent because I've never used it and it has bugs in the control panel, called yast, that make it inaccessible.
Burning and booting your Linux distribution
These are generic instructions for downloading, burning, and booting a Linux distribution. Mistakes in this area are among the most common problems a blind or disabled user can run into. They can be very frustrating if you can't see the screen to know what's going on. Fortunately, downloading and burning the images is usually very easy. Booting is another story, which can be difficult or easy depending on your computer.
Download a distro
The first step is to download the Linux distribution you want to try. At the end of each description of a distro below, I will provide a link to the website where you can learn more, or download a copy. Once the download is complete, you are ready to proceed to the next step.
The next step is to burn the Linux distro, which usually comes in a file ending in .iso. An iso file is an exact (byte for byte) copy of a CD or DVD. Burn this to a CD, DVD, or USB drive. Instructions for this are outside the scope of this article, but here are some generic ones:
Double click or press Enter on the iso file. If your computer responds with a prompt telling you that it doesn't know what to do with the file, then you'll need to download and install software capable of burning iso files. Most Linux distros, and Apple's OSX, come with accessible software installed by default for handling these files. In the unlikely event that you are using a Linux distribution that doesn't, it will offer to search for such software to handle this file type. In that case, choose Yes, and on the resulting screen pick a software program you like if there is more than one. Then, select the Install button.
If you are using Microsoft Windows, you will need to download software for this purpose. Windows 7 and above can natively burn these files to CDs or DVDs, but you still need special software if you want to burn to a USB drive.
Booting the image
The last and most complicated step is booting the image so you can try it out and optionally install it. This is complicated by the fact that there is no specific standard set of instructions to accomplish this that works for all computers. If you are using a computer with Microsoft Windows 8 or above, it should be simple, but you are still required to access your computer's boot menu. When you first boot your computer but before the operating system loads, there is a key you can press (usually one of the F keys) to access a list of devices you can boot from. If you are using a Mac, hold down the Options key while booting your computer to bring up this menu. If you can't find the right key to press, then you should search for the answer online with something like "access boot list for (computer model here)."
Once you've booted the image, you're ready to explore your new Linux distribution!
Accessibility-focused Linux distros
This section lists Linux distros created specifically to appeal to the needs of a wide range of visual and physical disabilities, from blindness, to dyslexia, to impairments causing difficulty with moving the mouse or using the keyboard.
All of these Linux distros have speech and braille enabled by default. Some of them have fonts specifically designed to help people who have difficulty reading the screen. All of them come with an on-screen keyboard, a magnifier, and options to turn on additional keyboard settings for people who have difficulty pressing more than one key at once.
This was the first Linux distro I ever tried, and it blew me away with its accessibility and software selection. It has three desktop environments by default on the live image, allowing you to experiment with and pick the desktop that you're most comfortable with.
The Vinux Project will release a new version with many fixes and updated accessibility packages.
Sonar is my favorite disability-specific Linux distro—I am also a co-developer for it!
We are focused on providing the latest accessibility software while also providing an easy to use desktop with a wide range of accessible software installed for CD ripping and burning, office productivity, web browsing, email, instant messaging, media playback, file sharing, security, management of Apple devices, and more. Sonar also comes with nearly all the multimedia codecs one could want, and thus DVDs and Blu-ray disks play out of the box. Sonar is based on the Manjaro Linux distro, which is easy to install.
Install Sonar once and update it as new software becomes available. We've just released the lastest version with updated packages and important fixes. Sonar comes in three different editions, two of which provide different desktops to try. The third edition is for those who prefer using the command line, and does not come with a desktop.
Mainstream Linux distros
This section lists Linux distros that are not specifically focused on disabled users, but nevertheless are completely accessible once the proper settings are enabled. All distros in this list also provide an easy way to turn on accessibility via a keyboard shortcut, and they provide a talking desktop and login screen. Plus, their installers are accessible, allowing for completely independent installation, use, and maintenance. Unless otherwise noted in the descriptions I give, to turn on accessibility settings, as well as, the Orca screen reader, press and hold down the ALT and Command keys, then press S. This key is called "super" for Linux.
This is my favorite mainstream Linux distro. I use it on a lot on my computers at home. The community is very helpful and friendly, and goes out of its way to help new users. If there is an accessibility issue in Fedora, it's either fixed directly or a bug is filed against the appropriate upstream package so it can be fixed. You can't ask for much better than that.
Fedora comes with a wide assortment of software, including CD burning, office productivity, web browsing, email, instant messaging, and much more. There are also many packages available in the software repositories. Please note that, due to legal and patent issues, Fedora cannot include audio codecs for some file formats, most noteably MP3, as well as, some video codecs for playing commercially available DVDs and Blu-ray disks.
Please note: At the moment, the only accessible version is the "workstation" image. This will likely be fixed as soon.
Ubuntu is the original accessible Linux distribution. Ubuntu has a wide array of software installed for office productivity, web browsing, sending and receiving email, instant messaging, and more. Ubuntu has its own desktop environment called Unity. While it does have some accessibility issues, it's still usable by a screen reader and comes with additional accessibility tools, like a magnifier, onscreen keyboard, and keyboard accessibility support.
This Linux distro is Ubuntu with the MATE desktop environment. This distribution is ideal for those who like a classic desktop similar to the one used in Windows XP or 7, or for computers that can't handle the more modern desktops, like Gnome or Unity. It comes with a wide assortment of software for office productivity, web browsing, email, and more. Ubuntu MATE's community is newbie-friendly and does its best to fix accessibility issues that come up. I personally know one of the developers, and he's committed to keeping Ubuntu MATE accessible.
Trisquel is unique. It has a strict philosophy of only including software that meets strict guidelines. In particular, they will not include any software, firmware, or drivers that have a license that forbids modification and redistribution. This means it will not run on all hardware, but for those who share the same values or have hardware that it will work on, it's a very nice Linux distro.
To enable accessibility, boot the image. That's it. It will boot on its own after a timeout, and it will start with the Orca screen reader enabled. It comes with a wide range of free software tools for web browsing, email, instant messaging, and more. A word of warning: The Trisquel community can be somewhat abrasive to newcomers, especially those coming from Windows.
Recommendation: Read the website.
Text-based Linux distros
This section lists distros that do not come with a graphical desktop by default (you can install one). These are best for those who have experience in setting up Linux, or for those who don't want to use a desktop at all. All of these distributions either talk out of the box or can easily be configured to talk.
Talking Arch is a speech- and braille-enabled version of the Arch Linux distro. I advise all new users to read a few articles on the Arch wiki before installing this distribution, in particular the Beginner's Guide. This distro is not hard to install, but it does not come with a graphical installer, so you'll need to be somewhat skilled in Linux management to successfully install it. To help new users, there is a tutorial available on the website.
Debian is the basis for many other Linux distributions, including Ubuntu. It is available in both graphical and command-line editions. There are a lot of images available, so getting the right one can be somewhat confusing. If you wish to have an easily installable version, be sure to grab the live image. If you prefer to do things manually, grab the network install image. To enable accessibility and the Orca screen reader on the graphical image, press and hold down the ALT and Command keys, then press S. To enable accessibility if you downloaded the network install image, press S at the boot screen of the image and press Enter. After the image boots, you should hear speech. Follow the prompts from there.
In this article, I've shown you several Linux distros that you can use if you need assistive software to get your work done. And, with many things in Linux, there are convenient ways, as well as, more manual ways of doing almost any task.
Linux is an ever-evolving operating system that depends heavily on its community. So, if you try Linux for the first time and decide you like it and want to stay, I encourage you to give back to the community that made it possible. This does not have to mean writing code. You can help newbies with questions, file bugs, or just simply spread the word.
To me, as a disabled person, I am dependant on software to do things others take for granted, so it's that much more important to know what my computer is doing. It also allows me to have more control and fix things that break.
What accessible Linux distribution do you use? It would be great to hear which one and what you like about it. If it's not listed, tell me more about it in the comments below.
in Open Source
This article is part of the Diversity in Open Source series to help foster an inclusive and welcoming environment by publishing a diverse range of voices on a variety of international open source topics.