The Year of GNOME Accessibility

We are now half way through 2012, the year of Linux on the desktop. Or was that last year? What we do know for certain is that 2012 is the year of the Accessible GNOME desktop. The GNOME project, a major upstream project for us, has launched a campaign to raise funds to help achieve a set of goals including performance improvements when the desktop accessibility APIs are turned on, enhancements to the readability of WebKitGTK+ and improvements to automatic regression testing which ties in nicely with the renewed emphasis on QA and automated testing in the Ubuntu project.

As well as this great financial way to contribute to accessibility on the desktop if you would like to help in a practical way by fixing some bugs the “a11y” tag (“ccessibilit” is the 11 letters between a and y so a11y is the shortcut for accessibility) has recently been added to http://harvest.ubuntu.com which is a website to help you to find and filter launchpad bugs to find interesting places to contribute to Ubuntu. You can now filter on accessibility bugs that are bitesize for example.

Embiggen your Unity

For those who want a bit more chunkiness in your user interfaces there is a little option tucked away to boost the size of the unity launcher icons. Using the CompizConfig Settings Manager (which is available in the software centre, or sudo apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager from the command line) you can go to the experimental tab of the Unity plugin and change the value of the launcher icon size parameter. It varies from 32 to 64 with the default being 48. The screenshot below shows the effect of setting it to 64 (click the screenshot to see it actual size – the blog might rescale it a bit)

The Unity launcher with larger icons
It isn’t a huge difference and it doesn’t affect other parts of Unity, purely the launcher size, but for some it may make icons easier to recognise and target with the mouse. There are a few other options in the plugin you might want to adjust to taste. If you find the launcher sliding in and out problematic you can set it to hide “never” and it will stay on the left side of the screen so won’t pop out and obscure back buttons. (of course this comes at a cost of between 32 and 64 horizontal pixels available for applications)

Oneiric Ocelot

We are pleased to announce the release of Ubuntu 11.10, the Oneiric Ocelot. There have been significant architectural changes this release and heroic efforts have been made to get the accessibility tools and APIs functional by the time of release. This is the first release where the default desktop environment for the accessibility install profiles is Unity 2D, this does change the screen layout for everyone, including screen reader users, more on that below. One small, but interesting, change we made was a tweak to the espeak pronunciation dictionary, Ubuntu 11.10 can now pronounce it’s own codename, even if you can’t! With Ubuntu 11.10 installed you can run the command spd-say "Ubuntu 11.10 The Oneiric Ocelot" to hear how it should be said.

Starting the screen reader installer

The procedure for initiating a narrated install has changed. No longer do you have to press space during some time interval after the startup when there is an on-screen icon that you can’t see! When booting from CD or USB wait until you hear some drums and press ctrl+s to start speech. (if it doesn’t work, wait a few seconds and press ctrl+s again, there appears to be a timing issue remaining). Orca will then start, and focus will be on the Orca window. From this point you can alt-tab to get to the Ubiquity installer and proceed with the install.
We recommend you do the install whilst connected to a wired internet connection, this will allow it to auto detect your location and get your locale and keyboard settings right, these bits of the installer are not easily operated with a keyboard and orca can’t see some important parts of them.

Alternative video URLs as the flash object above is not accessible:

Sorry about the crackly audio in the videos.

Getting around Unity with Orca and the keyboard

Unity is almost fully keyboard navigable (a few bits in the indicators don’t work) and there is a comprehensive list of shortcuts available here. The video below describes some of the elements on screen and how to get between them.
Alternative video URLs as the flash object above is not accessible:

Onboard the on-screen keyboard

Onboard now has a new theme, Radiance. This has been designed to fit in with the overall look of the Ubuntu desktop, it uses the Ubuntu font on the keycaps, the circle of friends on the super keys and colours picked out from the Ubuntu pallete. We made sure that the main letter keys had the most contrast, followed by numbers and we used bolder colours on the special keys like tab and space. An earlier version of this theme was available after release in 11.04, but with 11.10 it is set up by default on the CD.
The Onboard settings manager now works correctly, you can change themes, including high contrast themes and a scanning layout which allows users with highly restricted mobility to operate the keyboard using a switch. (There is a fairly significant bug with the return key in scanning mode right now as shown in the video below, hopefully that will be fixed in an update soon.)
Another small but highly significant improvement is that Onboard is back in the menus, you can now start onboard using just a mouse, touchscreen or other pointing device.

Compiz zoom

This is off by default (not sure why) but you can turn it on using the compiz settings manager, which is not installed by default. From the software centre install compizconfig-settings-manager, or from a command line sudo apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager
Once this is installed you can run it from the dash and enable the enhanced zoom desktop plugin, I like to set a mouse shortcut of <Super>Button 4 for zoom in and <super>button 5 for zoom out, this way I can hold the super key (windows key) and use the mouse wheel to zoom the desktop.
Compiz enhanced zoom does not zoom the dash, launcher or panel, just the workspace you are on. It tracks the mouse cursor and can be set to move manually.

The Accessibility Settings Dialog

The main system settings screen is available in the Unity launcher, and in the power/shutdown indicator at the top right of the screen, it has a submenu for accessibility settings where various assistive tools can be turned on and off and settings can be tweaked.
The accessibility subsection has 4 pages, the first one relates to visual features with options for high contrast, large fonts, zoom (which doesn’t work for me) and turning on Orca the screen reader.

The second page is about hearing, and contains the option to have a visual system bell indicator.

Thirdly typing, where the onboard keyboard can be activated, along with sticky keys, slow keys and bounce keys.

Lastly mouse related items including hover click, also known as dwell click. This allows use of the mouse or other pointing device without clicking. This works quite well in conjunction with the onboard keyboard.

The ugly bits

Maximising the onboard window in Unity2d is a really really bad idea. It is on top of everything and has no window controls when maximised as it refuses focus, and you can’t double click the title bar to restore it. Once maximised your only real option is to switch to another workspace using a hard keyboard ctrl+alt+arrow keys then run gconf-editor and in the apps\onboard section change the height, or reboot into Unity3d and double click or drag down the top panel. This is Bug 859288
Orca can’t read what is going on with Unity3d. By default if you install using the screen reader you will boot into the 2d desktop. At present the 3d desktop is not accessible, however there is code to make this work and we expect this to be made available in a PPA for 11.10 is available in a PPA https://launchpad.net/~apinheiro/+archive/unity-extra-a11y and should be in by default in 12.04 LTS.
Orca does not run during the lightdm window manager right now, this will be fixed in an update, but as of release the login screen is not accessible. By default on bootup the primary user of the system will be selected, so entering the password and return will lead to the desktop where orca will start. There is no sound at the lightdm window, but disk activity should stop when it gets to the point to type in the password.

What our personas say

We use a set of design personas to help us examine the accessibility of Ubuntu from different perspectives, we asked our fictional characters what they thought of Ubuntu 11.10:

John

“As a deaf user of Ubuntu I like video conferencing with my friends who sign. I know there have been some difficulties with Skype and Oneiric, but it works on my computer. The new Google plus hangouts are nice and smooth. glad to see the option to make the system bell flash the window is still available”

Daniela

“As a blind user of Ubuntu I am glad that the new desktop is becoming accessible to me. I think I will wait a while for some of the fixes that didn’t make it to the initial relase before installing it on my primary laptop though.”

Simon

“As a partially sighted user of Ubuntu I am pleased that the themes for high contrast are available, however a bit disappointed that they don’t affect the unity panel and launcher. I use the compiz zoom a lot and this does not zoom the unity elements which is a bit of a disappointment, I like the big chunky alt-tab switcher though.”

Faisal

“As a user with rheumatoid arthritis I like the on screen keyboard accessibility of the Unity launcher and the dwell click options. I can’t quite figure out how to do a middle click though.” I would like to use dasher with unity but it is not easy to use it to type directly into applications or the unity search box.

Henrietta

“As someone with memory issues I like the dash search that allows me to see recently used files and applications and the way the desktop helps me to be organised, I put the applications I use all the time on the launcher and I use workspaces to focus on different activities”

And onwards to Precise Pangolin

Generally speaking, Oneiric including the ubiquity installer and unity desktop is now broadly functional, in the next release we want to make it pleasurable! The major changes in this release have meant  that meaningful accessibility testing has taken place later in the  development cycle than we would have liked, but we do now have a solid foundation on which to build for the 12.04 Long Term Support release. Some items we would love to work on during the forthcoming development cycle are:
  • Compiz zoom text cursor tracking – the zoom currently tracks just the mouse, it would be great to be able to zoom in and type in text fields and have the zoom follow the text cursor.
  • Ubiquity script improvements – we need to review and change the accessible text that is read out by the installer, possibly including some introductory guidance on how to navigate through the interface and generally making it more welcoming.
  • Additional onscreen keyboards –  onboard has slightly special treatment in unity, it is about the only thing that is allowed ‘above’ the dash so you can use it to type into the search field. We would like to support other keyboards such as the Gnome Caribou project and Dasher. There might be some benefit to a really tight integration with the unity layer, making it slide out of the launcher like the dash, possibly as part of a renewed effort to get the tablet and touchscreen experience as smooth as possible.

If you have any further questions about accessibility in Ubuntu, or would like to help make it better, then do ask below, or join us in the #ubuntu-accessibility IRC channel on Freenode.

Eyes-free feedback on Ubuntu 11.04

We have had some feedback on the ubuntu-accessibility mailing list which I would like to bring to a wider audience, Dave Hunt is blind and using an Asus 1015PE (a netbook) as his work-a-day system.

“I am running Ubuntu 11.04, but still with classic Gnome.  Unlike on the live cd, there are no crashes like we saw, now that I’ve installed it to hard drive.  The machine is not vinucized; that is, I did an eyes-free, independent install from the stock 11.04 image.  Orca got screwed up during the animated slide show that runs while the install is in progress.  When I got to the final step, I turned Orca off and hit the ‘install’ button.  Then, I just walked away, and came back to the machine after about a half-hour.  I assumed all was ready, ejected the usb drive, and rebooted.  To my delight, The narwhale came up talking, on the gdm screen.

Access to the Indicator Applet (the thing used for setting up wifi, checking the battery, etc, is a bit flaky, but, fortunately, one doesn’t need to play with the thing often.  I activated keyboard shortcuts for adjusting volume.  Next, I added the apt repositories for the Orca daily builds, installed Thunderbird, Drobbox, and a few other things I like.  In every stock Ubuntu system I’ve ever used, Orca won’t give access to the gui admin apps, unless one runs them from the terminal, with sudo.

The next thing I noticed was that the skype api plugin for empathy and pidgin does not work fully in Natty.  I can make calls, send and receive text messages, but cannot accept incoming calls.  I hear the ring tone, see the ‘accept’ dialogue, but attempts to accept do nothing.

I have about 12 gb of tunes, mostly in ‘mp3′ files.  In prior Ubuntu distros, I could manage this music collection with the Rhythmbox application.  In 11.04, Banshee is the new media player. Before I loaded my music collection, Banshee could open and play streams.  Now that the music is in place, Banshee will not fully open, and attempts to run it result in a frozen X session.  I installed Rhythmbox for comparison.  Rhythmbox will browse my files, create the indices, and play the music.  It will not, however, save  the database for future sessions.

Finally, Something I unwittingly did on Saturday has resulted in a system in which Orca will, sometimes, not start post-login.  I get the login drums and talking gdm screen.  I log in.  I get the post-login music, then, sometimes, nothing.  If I wait a minute or more, then manually start Orca, it still won’t go.  I have to pull the switch and restart; maybe it will work.

Well, there, you have it!  I’m not sure whether I’ll down-grade, change distros, or just make this thing work.  I have a stubborn streak that makes the third option most appealing.”

a few days later Dave updated us with his progress, now with Unity

“I decided to change the desktop, on this trusty netbook, to Unity from Classic Gnome, having remembered decent accessibility when I played with it at a Ubuntu Beta Bug Jam at a Canonical office.

In my previous message, you’ll recall, I mentioned trouble accessing the indicator applet, where one chooses network connection, checks battery, restarts, etc.  I’m happy to report that these menus are easy to find and read when using Unity.  I like how they are attached to the menu strip for the focused application.  Using that filter string to get quickly to a subset of the items found in Preferences, is very nice, too, so long as one knows what she/he is looking for.  For instance, I typed “login screen” into the filter, and found myself right on the “unlock” button.  The shortcuts, ‘super+0′ through ‘super+9′ are very quick and convenient; What a great idea!

Now, here are the things that still need some work, perhaps the team is already aware of these?  Context menus for launcher buttons do not speak.  The speaking of Unity menu names, as one scrubs with left or right arrow is inconsistent.  All Unity menu items (wifi options, volume/mute, etc, are spoken as “checkbox unchecked”; I happen to know what is a checkbox, and what is not, but, this should be fixed.  The new-style “places” options do not speak.  Partial results in the ‘run’ dialogue do not speak.  Finally, when switching applications with ‘alt+tab” or ‘alt+shift+tab’ keys, Orca will not speak while the modifier key(s) held down.  When keys released, Orca, first, speaks the name of the application that had focus, then the name of the newly-focused application.  This requires that user memorize the order of applications in the stack, an unnecessary distraction.”

Accessibility at the Ubuntu Developer Summit

Last week was the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Budapest, this marks the start of the development cycle for the Oneiric Ocelot release of Ubuntu which will be out in October. This is where the strategic discussions take place to decide what work items can be achieved in the next 6 months, and how the work in the next 12 months leads up to the next long term support release. There were four sessions specifically on accessibility, but it was also raised as a consideration in a number of discussions of other subject matters, including a segment of the keynote (audio here, starting around 21:30)

“We made major steps on Accessibility in Unity, we knew we couldn’t move to an entirely Unity based environment until we had accessibility absolutely sorted. Accessibility is one of our core values as a project and so I want to thank Luke and several other people who made substantial contributions to that we have a lot more work to do and that work will get finished in this coming cycle, so Luke and the other folk who led that, thank you very much” – Mark Shuttleworth

On the Wednesday evening about 30 people went on the outing to the Invisible Exhibition, you can read about it on Lyz’s writeup of day 3

Group photo of the people who went to the Invisible Exhibition

All the session notes were made using the collaborative etherpad editor integrated into the summit schedule website, but we are including them below as plain text for ease of reading with Orca, along with link to an audio recording of the session below each heading.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Invisible Exhibition at UDS

Imagine that all the lights go out…The Blogging Against Disablism image, 20 stick figures, some with symbols representing impairments

The Invisible Exhibition is a unique interactive journey to an invisible world, where in total darkness you find your way only by touch, sounds and scent.

Give us your blind trust!

If you join us, you will also be able to understand what life is like without one of the senses that  provides us with the most information, to live without your sight. At this exhibition you will be lead by blind or partially sighted people on a journey that will change perception and possibility even in your mind.

Interesting?
Strange?
Weird?
Or .. perhaps feels natural?
Could an hour of blindness open your eyes?
Could you use your computer running Ubuntu like this?

In the “Meet Daniela” post on April 6 we mentioned the Invisible Exhibition in Budapest which will be going on while many folks are in town for the Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS). We have picked up the idea for attending this at UDS and with the Ubuntu Hungarian team have planned an outing open to all UDS attendees to the exhibition on the evening of Wednesday May 11th.

We need to buy the tickets for this exhibition in advance and arrange an English language guide so we request that everyone registers by this Friday the 6th to be guaranteed a spot so we can contact the exhibition with an estimate on the size of our group. However, we will accept registrations through the afternoon of Monday the 9th as we will be purchasing tickets Monday evening.

Registration is being handled through the LoCo Directory here: http://loco.ubuntu.com/events/team/949/detail/

Costs are detailed here, we’re not sure yet whether we’ll meet the group rate and an English-speaking guide costs extra per group: http://www.lathatatlan.hu/en/what-is-it/tickets/ A couple of community members will be handle paying for the tickets up front, and once we know how much final costs are we will let you know and you can pay us (in cash) at UDS.

We must meet directly after the final session of the day as we plan on leaving at 6:15 sharp to catch public transit over to the exhibition. After this exhibition we plan of going out to dinner, but you’re welcome to make your own plans.

If you have accessibility needs or any other questions please don’t hesitate to contact lyz@ubuntu.com as soon as possible so we can be sure to make proper arrangements.

Meet Daniela

Continuing our series of design personas we would like you to meet Daniela, here she is diving into a training session at the university pool, where she is a keen swimmer.
Daniela diving into a swimming pool
Now, unlike most people who throw themselves into a pool, Daniela can’t see that she is going to land in water because she is blind. There are many different types of visual impairment, Daniela is classified as NLP or Nil Light Perception, she can’t see a thing, and never has done. Daniela loves her swimming, and she is very good at it, she enters lots of competitions in the S11 paralympic classification. She is used to winning.
She says:
“Being blind, I depend on synthesized speech and a refreshable Braille display to access my computer. I need to be able to use all sorts of documents in different formats including: Microsoft Office, and PDF-documents. E-mail access and a book scanner are also vital to my being able to function in my job and private life. Low sound quality is difficult for me, so text should be pronounced clearly. I also would like to communicate with people using voice messages or even voice chats.”
Behaviors
Daniela uses her laptop extensively, she is never without it as it is her primary means of organising her busy life and her competition schedule.
Use
The Orca screenreader allows Daniela to navigate around the Ubuntu desktop, because she does not know or care where on the screen things are positioned she thinks of them in terms of a stack of applications, each one consisting of a circular list of widgets she can tab through. Audio is really important to her, she uses Ekiga, Mumble and Skype to talk to different groups of friends.
Why using Ubuntu?
Daniela has been using Orca for some time and is familiar with the way gnome applications are normally arranged. She wants to use the operating system that her friends also use.
Why a challenge?
Daniela tried to install Ubuntu Maverick herself, but the installer could not be read by the screen reader so she had to ask a sighted friend to help by describing what was on screen.
We tried to install Ubuntu Natty using the screen reader profile and just about managed, but with the benefit of functional eyes.
(If you are reading this on planet Ubuntu then click through for the video)
We filed a few bugs as a result:

Do have a go at this yourself, this is all available using the standard desktop CD and it is quite fertile ground for the keen bug hunter. If you would like to help fix some of these bugs or discuss them further then please do join the #ubuntu-accessibility IRC channel on Freenode.

She is quite used to the Orca screenreader, but would like more applications to be tested with it to make sure they operate logically.

When applications crash and dialogs unexpectedly pop up it is hard to figure out what has happened as her mental map of where things are in relation to each other gets disrupted.
Life Goals
In 2012 the Paralympic games are on in London, Daniela wants to represent her country in the S11 swimming events. This will involve yet more travel and a lot of alarms to remind her when to be at different parts of the Olympic Village. She will also be using it to find information about places to explore and to get access to Twitter updates from the organisers and other athletes.
Experience Goals
Daniela has plenty of sighted friends who can help, but she would very much like to be more independent when using her computer.
How to be Daniela
Try walking up to the edge of a swimming pool blindfolded and do a proper dive in, harder than it sounds! When using the computer, you have to be blind too, but it isn’t essential to wear a blindfold or shut your eyes, start by unplugging or turning off the monitor, you won’t be needing that (Ubuntu doesn’t boot without a monitor at the moment, so you may need it for a bit). To see if you are a good enough typist put a towel or cloth over your hands and keyboard, or even one of these funky keyboard gloves:
Body-Technology Interfaces
but don’t worry, if you need to see the keys just take it away, that isn’t a critical part of your testing. Do make sure you are not cheating and looking at any lights on the computer such as hard disk activity lights or lights on peripherals. Try installing Ubuntu using the voice prompts and getting around the desktop and your favorite applications.
UDS
Today was the day for the community sponsorship mails if you are going to UDS in Budapest then why not arrange a visit with a bunch of friends to the Invisible Exhibition http://www.lathatatlan.hu/en/ you will be given a white cane and led into an area of total darkness where your guide (who is blind) will take you on a tour of the exhibition. On Thursday they do a dinner in the dark followed by an invisible party! This is a fantastic way to get an understanding (even if brief and limited) of what it is like for Daniela and the many many people like her. If you are interested in this please add a comment to this blog post.
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