Is Linux accessible?

Updated January 11th, 2013

The Linux Operating System has become increasingly popular on servers and desktop systems, in part because it's freely distributable and open-source and it runs on a variety of hardware platforms. However, due to the open source nature of Linux, accessibility related efforts are dynamic and can change, fluctuate or be retired at any time. Until recently, GUIs and graphical desktops on Linux, which behave similarly to those on Windows or Mac, have remained inaccessible to users with various disabilities.

Recent significant improvements have occurred through the GNOME Accessibility Project, which focuses on the accessibility of a very popular Linux desktop called GNOME. The project has worked to build improved accessibility features into GNOME and to create a screen reader, Braille output software, and a sophisticated on-screen keyboard. In addition, the project has created the GNOME Accessibility Architecture, which integrates these three tools and many other pre-existing third party ones.The GNOME desktop can make use of a screen reader named Orca. Orca is a free, open source, flexible, and extensible screen reader that provides access to the graphical desktop via user-customizable combinations of speech and/or braille.

Orca works with applications and toolkits that support the assistive technology service provider interface (AT-SPI), which is the primary assistive technology infrastructure for the Solaris and Linux operating environments

Other third-party tools include keyboard and mouse configuration utilities (e.g., with StickyKeys, MouseKeys, RepeatKeys, SlowKeys, ToggleKeys, BounceKeys), speech recognition software, Braille translation software, Optical Character Recognition software, and many others. An overview of Linux accessibility, including lists of Linux AT software products, is available at the Linux Accessibility Resource Site (LARS).

Another Linux option is Vinux, a remastered version of the Ubuntu Linux Distribution, optimized for visually impaired users. It provides a screen-reader, full-screen magnification and support for Braille displays It can be run from a CD or external drive, such as a flash drive, alongside Windows or Linux.

Linux advocates argue that the free software movement, upon which Linux is built, eventually will lead to a richly accessible operating system, because open-source software allows users and developers to modify and improve the products they use. Thus, Linux advocates contend that users with disabilities will ultimately have greater control over their computing environment, have more choice in the tools they use and how they use them, and be less dependent on a handful of AT vendors to meet their needs.