Getting started with Linux

Tony Baechler tony at
Wed Oct 22 10:09:09 UTC 2008

krishnakant Mane wrote:
> But after ubuntu and its accessibility seriousness from the associated
> development community, I just can't recommend any thing else as a
> totally blind person myself.
> Heck, I am telling windows users to shift to ubuntu.  Note that
> argueablly windows till date had the best accessibility for blind
> users in terms of screen reader superiority and state-of-the-art
> accessibility infrastructure.  But today the free software community
> which works on the "free as in freedom " principle, has built up a
> much better superior and scientific accessibility infrastructure for
> gnome desktop.


I must respectfully disagree with the above statement.  I understand 
that things should be better now when Ubuntu adopts the changes from the 
latest Debian installer, but I have a serious problem with the claim 
that Ubuntu is as accessible as Windows.  First of all, unless I'm 
mistaken, there are still many apps that don't work well with Orca.  I 
admit that I'm still learning, but I didn't find rhythmbox particularly 
accessible for example.

Also, while it's true that you can run Orca from the live CD, it is 
very, very slow.  It took at least 15 minutes to boot and several 
minutes just to open an application.  Yes, it could be done but frankly 
it was very painful.  I'm running Windows 98 on 256 MB of RAM.  I'm the 
first to admit that memory could be the issue, but Windows 98 runs fine 
and fairly fast.  OK, one could argue that of course the live CD would 
be slower and Ubuntu compares to XP in terms of resources, but I would 
disagree with that too, at least on a general level.  Linux from the 
console runs very well in that same box and from a live CD (grml 1.1rc1) 
with no problem and minimal slowness.  Linux by design should require 
less resources than Windows, but the argument would seem to be that this 
is no longer correct, at least from what I've read on the lists.

One thing I forgot to mention.  You say that Firefox 3 is accessible.  
Yes, it can certainly be used by the blind, but I wouldn't say that it 
is completely accessible by any means.  Often pressing Tab gives me 
silence and it's hard to know when I'm on a form.  That's with Firefox 
3.  Windows is still far better in this regard, but it's getting closer.

The biggest issue I have with the statements at how great Ubuntu 
accessibility is has to do with the complete lack of Speakup support in 
the kernel.  As I said, hopefully this will change, but I've read 
several times on the Speakup list that it's impossible to build Speakup 
into the current Ubuntu kernel.  That completely leaves the blind out of 
decent console access.  Again, there's Gnome terminal but Orca 
apparently has no support for hardware speech and lacks the features of 
Speakup, which is designed for the console.  That means that at a 
minimum, one would need two different kernels, one for Orca and one 
especially for Speakup which defeats the point of Speakup in the first 
place.  I seriously have an issue with saying that there is great 
accessibility when mail readers, chat programs, ftp clients, and web 
browsers are all made unavailable because of no console access.  One is 
forced into using the GUI alternatives.  I don't know about you, but 
that sure doesn't sound like freedom to me, at least in the meaning used 
by free software.

Instead, I would recommend Debian.  It has a talking installer with 
Speakup.  It also has Gnome and Orca.  It's updated more often than 
Ubuntu if you go with testing or unstable.  Ubuntu inherits almost 
everything from Debian eventually anyway, so you get it in Debian 
first.  If you install from unstable, you'll get newer versions of Gnome 
and Orca without waiting six months for Ubuntu.  That will also give you 
a good grounding in console access with speech.

The only other thing I would add is that your employer might use an 
entirely different distro, such as Fedora.  In that case, it doesn't 
matter what you install because you'll have to learn something new 
anyway.  If you just want to learn the basics, burn a live CD of grml or 
similar and just play with that until you get the hang of how things work.

I'll just add one final note.  I hope this has been fixed, but I 
verified with sighted help that the instructions for accessibility with 
speech using the Ubuntu live CD are just plain wrong.  I don't remember 
exactly what I had to do to get speech, but I posted about it several 
times here and on the Speakup list.  Even at that, I still had to 
manually launch Orca on one machine, even though the sighted person told 
me that I selected the screen reader.  How is that totally independent 
installation for the blind?

The bottom line is simply that there is no right or wrong distro to 
use.  I really like Debian, but I could also recommend Slackware and 
Gentoo for different reasons.  For someone relatively new, I would say 
to try Slackware or Debian.  If you really have no interest in the 
console and never want to learn it, Ubuntu is probably fine.  I am 
converting a sighted person to Linux.  I gave him Debian and he has been 
very happy with it.  He had no previous Linux experience and only used 
Windows.  He had no interest in learning the command line and had a very 
hard time with DOS.  He's now almost to the point of not using Windows 
at all.

If you have further questions or problems, contact me off list.  I offer 
a low cost yearly support service and I'll be more than happy to guide 
you through setting up and using Linux.  Let me know if you're interested.

Tony Baechler
tony at

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