To tell the tale of Linux desktop based accessibility is a long and daunting endever. There have been several screen readers most started and abandoned after a short time, some possibly not abandoned, in name only, and the only one to really make any headway as far as a graphical environment goes is Orca. There is good old reliable speakup of course, but it is console only. The Copernicus screen reader has been left by the wayside, in fact, I doubt many people still remember it. there is another one, or was, called LSR (Linux Screen Reader) but, as far as I know, that project is also dead.
As if that isn’t a twisted road enough, let’s take a look at the desktop environment situation. First, accessibility wise, there was Gnome. Gnome 2 was great. Accessibility chugged along at a decent rate,bugs got fixed eventually, except that thing in terminal that caused the first letter of words on a line to be dropped by Orca. It had a great, easy to use interface, and everything just worked and worked well, and except for the little hiccup caused by the Oracle Fiasco, Orca development went along at a decent pace. Of course, the Oracle travesty screwed lots of projects and it fell to the open source community to fix the mess left behind when Oracle acquired Sun. As is usally the case, the open source community did an excellent job, making new and better projects to replace the stuff destroyed in the takeover. But, I digress. All in all, Gnome 2 was great. Then, Gnome 3 came out.
I’m not going to rant about Gnome 3. Out there, somewhere, there are Gnome 3 users and developers who love the project, and out of respect for those poor souls, I will keep my opinion to myself, well for the most part anyway. Let’s just say, I like it only slightly better than Unity, which is one of the key reasons I left Ubuntu and its derivitives such as Vinux in favor of Arch. It’s really too bad about Vinux, the projecthad a lot of potential, but it is so tied to Ubuntu that accessibility seems to take a back seat to sticking with a distro that seems to become less and less accessible as time passes.
So, without Gnome, which I refuse to use in its current condition, I was in need of a desktop. There were supposed to be two of them that worked with accessibility, LXDE and XFCE. I can’t comment on LXDE, because I was never able to get it working with Orca. The closest I ever got was getting Orca to say “Welcome to Orca”. Other people had better luck with it than I did, and the accessibility was supposed to be pretty good for the most part.
I went with XFCE. It really seemed to have a lot of potential. Most of the programs that came with it work with Orca. The file manager, desktop, and panels did not read at all though. So, I went to the propper IRC channels, file the propper bugs, was told the usual “accessibility is very important to us, it will be fixed in the next release.”
The next release came and went, and nothing. I was told that it had been kind of rushed and that the accessibility stuff was definitely going to be in the next release. Well, that release came and went as well. After that one, there was really no more communication. No one answer quearies in the IRC channel, no one replied to messages on the XFCE accessibility mailing list, nothing improved with accessibility at all.
Things stayed that way for about a year, until one day a friend of mine tried the Mate desktop. For those who don’t know, Mate is a fork of Gnome 2. Apparently, there are more people than just me who refuse to use Gnome 3. We were both surprised to find that Mate was very accessible. The last we had heard, the accessibility stack had been completely removed from it. Either that was completely wrong, or sometime afterwards they put it back in. There were a couple problem areas, once again with the desktop and panels, and the propper channels were once again followed. And, unlike with previous experiences, the bugs were fixed right away.
As far as the Mate desktop itself goes, I can’t say enough good stuff about it. It’s like the good old days, the desktop is fun again. I once again enjoy using a graphical environment. Of course, I think I have become a hard core CLI user, but when I need a desktop, Mate is completely awesome.
The one thing I kind of don’t like, is if you install the mate and mate-extra packages and select the defaults, you get stuck with pulseaudio. I have disliked pulseaudio for as long as I can remember. I probably would have stuck with XFCE if there wasn’t a way around it. Fortunately, though, you can select packages 1-12, and 14-23 I think it is and it will skip the pulse dependancy. In the mate-extra packages also skip the package that pulls in pulse, and it will fall back to using gstreamer.
To install, just do the usual pacman -S mate mate-extra.
So that Orca will talk when you first open Mate and launch Orca, add this to your ~/.xinitrc
There is a second way to do this using gsettings directly. I haven’t tried this method yet, but others say it works just as well.
gsettings set org.mate.interface accessibility true
gsettings set org.gnome.desktop.a11y.applications screen-reader-enabled true
So, in closing, if you want a great, accessible desktop that is fun to use, works well, and behaves like a desktop should instead of something that appears to have a Mac and/or tablet identity crisis, use Mate. Even the people who can see prefer mate to the other desktops, the interface is well thought out, and just plain better in pretty much every way.