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.

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.

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.