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.

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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.

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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.)
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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.


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