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 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 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:


“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”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.


“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.

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:

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: 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 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.”
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.
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.
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 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.

Accessibility Testing Part I

One of the issues faced by many developers and testers is the ability to test for accessible installations and applications without having the specific disability. Hopefully, we are going to explain how to perform some of that testing without cutting off a hand or poking out your eyes.

What is ISO testing? It is the testing of each CD image before it is released for public use. Most of us are familiar with the releases, called milestones, of alpha and beta CDs. Well, before those images are released, they are tested to insure they work. That testing is done by Quality Assurance Testing, and we can always use help. We also run tests in between those milestones, since finding bugs and trying to get them fixed right at release time is problematic. The earlier the bugs are found, the better chance we will get them fixed for the final release.

Who does the testing? I am not a developer nor a programmer. I am, however, a tester. I can download any CD, follow simple directions to test that CD, and file bugs if it fails to work the way it should. I voluntarily do this testing because I want to see users able to use the CD the way it is intended. If I find a problem that gets fixed before the user gets the CD, they can use it with fewer problems.

When we are testing the milestone ISO, we track the results of the testing at, called the ISO Tracker. When using the tracker, the tester looks at which CD is being tested. By clicking on the CD symbol to the left of the description, the correct image can be downloaded or z synced. Clicking the description, you see several tests listed. To the left of each test is a symbol which takes you to the test case, which is a description of how to perform that test. Clicking the test itself takes you to a place where you tell the tracker you have started or finished the test.

When we not testing the milestones, we can still use the test cases, which are located at If you are testing the installation, you can go directly to the install tests at The only difference between this and the ISO testing of milestones is that you will not be logging your tests on the ISO Tracker. Please file bugs you find, and use the testcases every couple of days. Since we are specifically interested in Accessibility testing, we will use the installation testcases at Each test case will describe how to perform the test, whether or not you are disabled. At the time of this writing, we have the screen-reader test. We will eventually have tests for the Magnifier and On-Screen Keyboard as well. We will also attempt to add individual tests for the applications.

How are you going to run this test without looking at the monitor? Well, turn it off, of course, if it is an external monitor. That lets you see exactly what those with severe visual impairment sees. If you can not turn the monitor off, put a towel over it. Many visually impaired individuals can distinguish light and dark. Using a white towel gives you the “light means on” type of indicator. Of course, you still can not read the monitor screen.

The third step of this test is “Select your language and press ENTER”. Inevitably, at this point, the question is asked “How do I  select my language with a towel over the monitor?”. Remember, this is exactly what happens for the visually impaired user. The default language is English. Just press ENTER to select it. No, it might not be what you really want, but it is what you can select. The other trick we use is to memorize where the language we want is. Have an assistant tell you how many down or up arrows to use to get to your language of choice. Is this getting annoying yet? Are you concerned that you might not be able to do this test? Relax, and try to have fun. This is a new way of trying to install for you. But while doing this, take some time to think about the user who is forced to always do things this way.

Post written by Charlie Kravetz

Indicators and Accessibility

With all the major user interface changes that are coming in Ubuntu Natty, its easy to get lost in exactly what is changing, how, and why. Things like how you access your most frequently used applications, files, and devices, are all changing. If not in Natty, then in the very near future with Natty+1 and beyond. With all these changes, there is one change that hasn’t been heavily talked about, at least in the Ubuntu accessibility community, and the change that I am about to talk about has been around since Lucid, if not longer.

Traditionally, both on Linux desktop environments and Windows, there has been the concept of the system tray, where applications and system services would place icons, to inform you about various pieces of information, such as whether you have new mail, the amount of battery power left in your laptop, your sound volume, new instant messages, etc. Both in GNOME and Windows, one would have to navigate to the system tray area, or the notification area in GNOME, to interract with these icons. Sometimes you might want to get more information about your laptop’s power state, or you might want to change the network you are connected to, or you want to retrieve that message that just came in. With various screen readers on Windows, it is possible to review and interract with these icons with one or more keystrokes, but depending on what you wanted to do, you would either have to left click, right click, or even double click to get what you are after, whether it be a menu, a window to pop up, etc. Since at least Lucid, there has been ongoing work to change the way users are presented with information from such icons, and change the way the user interracts with them. Enter indicators.

An indicator is an icon on the top panel, which is used to do much the same as a system tray icon, i.e network strength, sound volume, new messages, etc. However indicators take it one step further, by changing the icon image, depending on the status of the indicator. In addition, indicators are sorted into logical groups of tasks, which reduces the clutter on the panel. The indicators we have as of Natty, are:

  • * Network: Handles everything to do with connecting to, discovering, and configuring your system’s network access.
  • * Sound: This indicator not only lets you change the sound volume and configure various sound settings, it also gives you a common set of controls for any media player that communicates via the empress protocol. Both Rhythmbox and Banshee communicate via this protocol, with more Linux media player support coming as more developers learn about, and implement this protocol.
  • * Bluetooth: This indicator allows you to configure access to bluetooth devices, adjust preferences, send/receive files, etc.
  • * Power: This indicator provides status for yor computer’s battery if it has one, as well as for any recognised device that is connected, such as a media player, or phone.
  • * Messaging: This indicator groups all messaging related tasks together. Everything from email, twitter/identica accounts, and instant messages is found here. With all Ubuntu’s common messaging applications such as evolution, pidgin, gwibber and xchat, this indicator will let you know when you have any new messages. Opening the indicator will then show you the individual programs that have messages waiting for you. More about how indicators are opened, and how they display information to the user in a minute.
  • * Date and time: This indicator’s name should be self explanetory, lets you see the current date/time, as well as access a calendar, which will also have evolution calendar integration, so you can look up your appointments without even having to open evolution.
  • * User, OR MORE COMMONLY REFERRED TO AS ME: This indicator is used to show, as well as access, controls related to the CURRENTLY LOGGED IN user, both setting your status for chat/instant messaging applications, as well as accessing and configuring your user profile, including your picture. This indicator also gives access to Ubuntu One. You can find out more about Ubuntu One at
  • * Session: This indicator provides access to session conTrolls, logging out, shutting down/restarting, suspending/hibernating your system, as well as switching to the guest, or other user. You can also lock your screen from here.

The major difference between indicators and system tray applications, is that indicators are all menus, and the area where the indicators are shown is a menu bar. In other words, you can click on an indicator, and then use the arrow keys to move between all the indicators and their menus, just like you would a normal menu bar. Its worth noting that there are controls both in the date/time indicator, and the sound indicator, that allow you to use the left/right arrow keys for adjusting various settings, most notebly, the sound volume.

So for a user who uses a screen reader such as Orca, how do you access the indicators? The answer depends on whether you are using the traditional GNOME environment with the GNOME panel at the top, or Unity. For the traditional GNOME environment, the indicators themselves are placed into indicator applets, that are added to the GNOME panel. You can add and remove various groups of indicators, based on what you want to use. The panel still allows the use of traditional system tray like applets, so for GNOME users, you can still use the older system tray icons if you wish, however you may change your mind when you have used indicators a few times.

For Maverick and earlier, the indicators in the gnome panel are in 2 groups. Networking, sound, bluetooth, power, and messaging indicators make up the first group, and the Me and session indicators make up the second group. There is date/time for Maverick and earlier, however this is the clock applet, i.e you have to access this via conventional means, navigating to the panel, locating the clock applet, and activating it. To access the first group, you press Super + M. Note that Super is also known as the Windows key. Pressing Super + M will place you onto the messaging indicator, and then you can navigate to whatever indicator you want to interract with, via the arrow keys. NOTE: Super + M conflicts with a Compiz binding to invert screen colours. Please check to see whether you are using Compiz prior to trying this keystroke. If you are using Compiz, it is suggested you reconfigure the colour inversion keystroke to something else, as the Super + M keystroke for the messaging indicator is not currently configurable. Configuring Compiz is out of the scope of this post. To access the session/second group of indicators, press Super + S, again this is not currently configurable. This will place you on the session indicator. When using either keystroke, the indicator menu will open, allowing arrow key navigation. Since the indicators are grouped, it is not possible to move between the groups of indicators with the arrow keys. In Natty, all above mentioned indicators will be in the one group, and the Super + S keystroke is the only keystroke that allows navigation to the indicators, but because all the indicators are in one group, the arrow keys can be used to move between all the indicators. FOr Natty and later releases, date/time is an indicator.

For Unity, things are quite different. Not only can you not use legacy system tray icons, but once you navigate to the top panel, you can access all menus for the current application, as well as indicators, by using the arrow keys. There are no grouping barriers between any top panel items. To access indicators in Unity, press the F10 key. This will place you on the first menu of the currently running application. You then press left arrow twice, to navigate to the other end of the panel, and navigate through the indicators. More information about how to make better use of the Unity environment will be given at a later date.

Note that if you access the indicators in Maverick and earlier, you will not get much information about that indicator, i.e no info about how loud your volume is, either from the indicator when you open it, or when you navigate to the volume control, and no information about new messages, or current network/bluetooth/power status. The one exception to this is the Me indicator, where you will here your username when navigating to that indicator menu. This is because that indicator has a label. The indicator design calls for very minimal use of labels, and only where absolutely necessary. As stated earlier, the icon is supposed to give a visual representation of that indicator”s status. Accessibility wise, things will be partially addressed in Natty, where navigating to the main indicators will give you some idea of what indicator you are on, and if that indicator icon represents a particular status, you will hear/read a textual description of that status. For example, navigating to the volume indicator will give you your sound volume in percentage. Navigating to the messages indicator will tell you if you have new messages, and of course, the network indicator will tell you what type of network you are on, whether it is wired or wireless, and the signal strength if applicable.

The indicator menus also use icons to convey further information about status, particularly in for wireless networks, as well as for applications with new messages waiting in the messaging indicator. It is hoped that this will be fully addressed in Natty+1, as the components of the indicator framework that are responsible for these icon menu items need to be extended to support textual descriptions of menu item icons.

There may or may not be more indicators introduced in the future. Applications can create and display their own indicators as a separate icon, and it will be up to individual indicator authors as to whether they include a textual description of their indicator icon, but it is hoped that any application that needs to use indicators, will be able to be grouped under one of the main indicators discussed above, thereby keeping panel clutter to a minimum.

For more information about indicators and accessibility, feel free to contact the Ubuntu Accessibility team,


This post was written by Luke Yelavich

Meet Faisal

A common technique for user interface design is to create a set of personas, fictional characters who will be using the software and have different needs. These help developers to scratch not just their own itch, but the itch of these characters that will be using the software. Canonical has a set of personas already in use by the design team, most are able bodied people from different backgrounds, but one of them is a visually impaired user. The Ubuntu Accessibility team is working on a project to expand the set of design personas to include a wider variety of different users with accessibility needs. Each one should have a name and a background, they should seem as real as possible, whilst being completely fictional, they even have a plausible looking picture (Creative Commons licensed). The descriptions include what their needs are and what they find difficult to do with the current release of Ubuntu. Our personas are all lovely people who just need a little bit of your help making their favorite operating system to work well for them as well as it works for everyone else. If you are a developer of any applications in Ubuntu or websites or community we want you to think about each of our persona characters and just ask yourself questions like “This works for me, but is it broken for the personas?”

Our first persona is Faisal, a 28 year old from India, here he is whilst out for a drink with a bunch of his mates:

photo by Kaushal Karkhanis (BY-NC-ND)

Faisal teaches a class of 6 and 7 year old children in a primary school in Assam, India. He studied at an Indian Institute for Information Technology and certainly knows his way around the computer! He would like to make better use of technology in the classroom to bring the lessons to life and inspire the children to explore the world around them. Faisal has rheumatoid arthritis which was diagnosed whilst he was studying at IIIT and has progressively made it harder for him to use his hands to operate the keyboard and mouse of his computer. When he first started teaching the arthritis didn’t cause much of an issue but now he is worried that if he became unable to continue he would find it very hard to get another job. He now doesn’t use the computer in the first lesson of the day when his hands hurt the most, and has found some ways to make it easier. He uses a very slow mouse cursor as he doesn’t have the fine motor control. He finds it very hard to resize windows with the standard Ubuntu themes, he has learned to hold alt and use the middle mouse button to resize because he just can’t hit the window borders. One hand on the keyboard for the alt key and moving the mouse whilst pressing the middle button is a tricky bit of coordination but he gets by. In the evenings when preparing lesson plans for the next day Faisal tends not to use the keyboard but uses the Dasher on screen keyboard, this allows him to type with just small movements of the mouse to select letters as they fly across the screen, it isn’t as fast as typing on the keyboard but it is much more comfortable and he can use it for long periods. Faisal also suffers from Deuteranopia, a form of colour blindness which is quite common in men, affecting about 1%, it can also affects women, but not nearly as many, about 0.01%. This means he struggles to distinguish red and green colours, so red icons on a green background just fade together.



Faisal is a teacher and an academic, he will have a play with new things to discover how they work, then he likes to read documentation and manuals to back up what he has found out for himself.


Faisal has a laptop, he tried a netbook but the keys were too small and close together. In the classroom he plugs it into a television for the students to see the screen too. The school plans to get more projectors but there isn’t one in his class yet.


Several other teachers at the school were impressed by Faisal’s use of Ubuntu in the classroom, they want to know more about it and Faisal has promised to spend a day showing them how to use it during the holidays.


He is keen to look at new ways to control the computer, he is looking forward to finding out if the Unity desktop will make his window management easier or harder. He likes to try new hardware as well and wonders if the Apple magic touchpad would be a better way for him to control Dasher.

Why using Ubuntu?

Faisal uses Ubuntu because he likes being able to adapt it to suit himself. He enjoys participating in the community support, both asking questions and helping other people.

Why a challenge?

Using a computer is an increasing challenge for Faisal as the keyboard gets more painful and can be used for shorter periods at a time. Using Dasher is relatively comfortable but it is slow, requires a lot of concentration and segfaults too much. Ultimately his condition is incurable and progressive, but Faisal wants to carry on working and enjoying what he does while he can.

Life Goals

It is quite hard in India for those with a disability to get a job, Faisal has no intention of leaving the school and wants to grow as a teacher in the area he loves. In two years from now Faisal will still be taking a sabatical from the teaching job to lecture trainee teachers on the use of technology in the classroom.

Experience Goals

Faisal would like applications to make efficient use of the keyboard and give him the flexibility to use multiple input devices and on screen keyboards. He would like applications to be tested for colour blindness to ensure that the colours used don’t blend together.

How to be Faisal

To test Ubuntu to make sure it works for Faisal and for people like him, you need to make your hands worse. Use sticky tape to tie some fingers together, observe how this makes some key combinations harder to reach. For a lack of mouse control crank up the mouse accelleration settings to the maximum, and instead of holding it in your dominant hand as normal swap to the other hand. If this is too easy try moving the mouse by prodding it with clenched fist rather than holding the mouse itself. You could also try tying some string around your wrist and attaching a weight to it that hangs off the desk to see the effect of a lack of control and fatigue. To use Dasher as a keyboard install it from the repos and launch with “dasher -a direct”. Unplug your regular keyboard and put it out of easy reach, just to remove the temptation to press a key if you get stuck! At some point Dasher will segfault – now what are you going to do? Faisal is colour blind, so you need to be colour blind too. Install compizconfig-settings-manager package and turn on the colour filter plugin in the accessibility section. Press super+d (the super key is the one with the little Windows flag on it) to turn on the full screen filter, then ctrl+super+s five times to step through the filters to the Deuteranopia setting (the Protanopia filter doesn’t work in Maverick 10.10 due to bug 599206 which has been fixed in Natty 11.04)

We do hope you enjoyed meeting Faisal, our first Accessibility Persona, why not come and join the team in the #ubuntu-accessibility channel on Freenode IRC and help us write the rest of the set.