Not Everyone's Body is Unimpaired

by Heather

Summer arrived with a flourish here in my corner of the world. Its been a hot summer so far, one I must admit I am enjoying very much, probably because the other 11 months are full of snow. However, though my local Pride Parade (a parade put on by our local gay community) got rained on rather nastily, it didn't douse the spirits of the people present and especially not the spirits of Steve, a friend of mine.

I don't see Steve often anymore since I don't go to the bar much now, but when I did I often talked to him and danced with him when possible. My girlfriend introduced us and she said she knew right off I'd have no prejudices against dancing with someone with CP (Cerebral Palsy) or even if they were in a wheelchair or needed help seeing their way to the floor. She was right, as she usually is, and seeing Steve since then has been a joy because he is always smiling. Seeing him this year reminded me that I have been meaning to write something for this column that serves what I feel is an under-served section of the community: those with various disabilities or needing aid to use their computers in any way.

Certain people like Steve have less of an issue with their laptops and desktops if they are reasonably able to use a pointing device, but what of others? What about people who are deaf or hard of hearing (HoH)? Having worked with deaf/HoH people for a year, I became acutely aware of their issues many years ago. It seems their needs are being met more and more but I have to wonder if this is true in the FOSS community or just the commercial realm?

Then there are those who are legally or totally blind. Where do they fit into all of this? How do they access what is, for all intents and purposes, a very visual medium? GUI or command line, it will make little difference to them which they use if they can't see what it is they are trying to access. I've seen a couple of specialist distros that address this (Oralux is the one I tried on my own desktop and I will address it in another column if possible). I have become aware of tools on the major DE's that can also help people who face these challenges. However, I also admit my knowledge in this area is woefully inadequate. Do such tools exist outside of the KDE/Gnome desktops?

Then we arrive at the people who'se disabilities are more pronounced than Steve's. People who, for whatever reason, are incapable of using a standard mouse or trackpad or trackball. There are those who can move only their eyes or need to use a mouthstick. Where do they go and what support can be offered to them? Is there specialized hardware available for these people and if so where would one go to access such things? Dare I even hope that the drivers used to tell these devices how to behave on a standard Linux installation work on Linux at all? Where are the developers doing the nitty-gritty work on these kinds of coding problems?

I'm sure I've missed some form of disability or some such thing in there. This is why I am calling upon you, my loyal readers, to help me. If it's possible for you to help me with this small series of articles, I'd like your input on these issues! Write in, give me ideas on where to look for information or name a distro you have tried that uses special hardware or software to help those with disabilities of any kind. If you cannot try a distro but want me (or someone I know) to try it out and give a short synopsis of how useful it might be, write in! I'm looking for readers to point out, as well, where things can be improved when it comes to helping you use the technology we have available to us today. Which companies are doing the R & D to solve these issues? Which businesses have a decent headset for someone with very limited mobility so she can use a head pointer to move a cursor around on the screen? Is it expensive? Does it require special setup or knowledge to set it up on the system? In other words, is it plug and play?

I know that the Debian distro has had, for some time now, Emac-Speak built-in and Braille drivers that allow the blind to use their braille hardware with a regular computer using linux. Do you know of any other distros out there that work extra hard to help all users access their computer? Write in and tell us what you think of that distro or ask us to review it if you like. Heck, review it yourself and write us anyway! Most importantly I want my readers to write in and tell me what they want me to address in the next few columns on the subject of disability and Linux. I want to hear what you have to say and I want to know what aspects of Linux you want me to cover so we can, perhaps, help you to enjoy using your computer instead of having to fight with it to get your tasks done.

Lastly if any of your friends or family wish to write in to point out things we might look at addressing, please tell them to do so. We are happy to receive such emails and I hope we can get to them. With luck we will manage to address the issues they might bring up too.