Editorial: The Potential of Open Source for the Visually Impaired
Jul 20, 2000, 08:32 (1 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by JP Schnapper-Casteras)
Re-Imagining Linux Platforms to Meet the Needs of Cloud Service Providers
[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today are their
own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux Today. -lt ed
Adaptive technologies for the visually impaired can be
life-changing devices and 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 they are 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, high
price, dependence on sighted assistance, and lack of freedom, are
confirmed by several sources.
The BLYNX site ("http://leb.net/blinux/blynx/sarsi.html")
"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
"$395... $495... $525... $195... $150... $195... $295... $600 to $723...
$525... $295... $79... $395... $295... $595... $100... $450."
Range: $79 to $723.
Programs for use with the Graphical User Interface:
"$495... $495... $895... $600 to $723... $795... $1,495... $495... $595...
$795... $695... $895... $2,495... $1,195... $695... $795... $1355...
$3,000... $495... $495... $495... $495."
Range: $495 to $3,000.
Miscellaneous Software and Devices:
"$495... $895... $1,795... $2,000 to $10,000... $150... $895... $495...
$349... $600... $450... $3,000."
Range: $150 to $10,000.
Software-Based Voice Synthesizers:
"$249... $175... $80"
Range: $80 to $249.
Hardware-Based Voice Synthesizers:
"$395 to $995... $665... $395... $895 to $1,295... $995... 1,195...
$349... $299... $895... $1,195... $1,195... $310... $279... $129.95
...$795 to $1,245... $595... $995... $369... $395... $650... $925.55."
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 uses a computer rarely. 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 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, freely available software for the blind is
immensely better than the closed source, non-free above mentioned
products. 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
The dependence on sighted assistance is confirmed by BLINUX's
"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 utilize 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
List of speech synthesizers is from ("http://www.linux-speakup.org/zipspeak.html")
Prices are from National Federation of the Blind Computer Resource
"You must have one of the following speech synthesizers to use
ZipSpeak; you can't use it with only a sound card."
Accent PC "Accent:...Price: $395 to $995."
Accent SA "Accent:...Price: $395 to $995."
Apollo 2 "Apollo Speech Synthesizers:...Price: $665;
additional languages $72."
Adapter "Adapter Speech System:...Price: $895.
Braille and Speak Not Listed
DECtalk Express "DECtalk Express:... Price: $1,195."
DECtalk External (older) Not Listed
DoubleTalk LT or LiteTalk "Double Talk LT:... Price: $310."
"Litetalk: ...based on Double Talk PC.,,
DoubleTalk PC "DECtalk PC:... Price: $1,195.
Speakout "Speak Out:...Price: $650."
Transport Not Listed
Range: $395 to $1,195.
In an article at Slashdot ("http://slashdot.org/articles/99/12/09/1342224.shtml
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
Although I deeply 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 that utilize several different
operating systems and many 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
above-mentioned problems, high price, dependence on sighted
assistance, lack of freedom, and to a lesser extent overly complex
interfaces, 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 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, "http://ocularis.sourceforge.net/".
Linux is copyright Linus Torvalds.