Off-Topic: Computing for the Blind

Polytropon freebsd at
Sun Mar 25 23:31:47 UTC 2012

On Mon, 26 Mar 2012 09:33:05 +1100, Barbara La Scala wrote:
> Apologies for the off topic posting but my stepfather is blind and he wants my advice
> about how to get online. I have no idea where to start looking for information on hardware
> and/or software for him. However, I vaguely remember someone on this list saying they 
> were visually impaired. If I'm remembering correctly, I'd really appreciate it if that person
> would get in touch with me.

The "old-fashioned" way to enable blind persons to use a computer
for getting online involves a way to read text. This can be done
basically in two ways:

a) The user has a Braille readout right infront of his keyboard.
   This is usually a one or two line combination of 40 or 80
   characters width, with electromagnetic Braille "mountain
   matrices" (6 or 8 dot code). This line can display one line
   of screen text. Which line (out of the 25 on the screen)
   can be selected by a slider on the side.
	| Suche Bilder Videos Maps News|
	|                              |
	| Google                       |
	|       Deutschland            | <---selection---+
	|                              |                 |
	| __________________________   |                 |
	|     Search   Good luck!      |                 |
	|                              |                 |
	|                              |                 |
	| H)elp O)ptions P)rint G)o    |                 |
	+------------------------------+                 |
	__ .   .... .... .... ...                        |
	.. ................__ ... ....                   |
	.. _................_ ... ....                   |
	.. _...............__     ....                   |
	.. __.............___  .  ....                   |
	.. __._.________._.__ ... __..                   |
	:::::::###########:::::::::::::  <---output------+

b) The user uses a similar selection mechanism as with the Braille
   readout, but a synthetic voice will read the text. Speed and
   volume can be controlled. (This is also available as a pure
   software solution!)

Most blind persons (I've met) seem to be fine with variant a) as
it fits their reading habits, their speed, their experience.
The input method of choice is the keyboard, as it (obviously)
does not need any visual confirmation. The "travelling distance"
for the fingers from typing to reading (and back) is acceptable.

For purchasing the hardware, I would suggest to consult the
web for some search, and then maybe attend a local specialized
store to obtain the devices. They tend to be a bit expensive.
Make sure to get hardware specs: How is it connected? Does it
require proprietary drivers? Does it work with "normal text
screens"? Niche market... :-(

Now for the software. In order to get the text to the Braille
readout, you need software that runs in text mode. On FreeBSD,
this is the default mode (unless you install GUI tools). Getting
online is very easy (see The FreeBSD Handbook), and everything
you now need is a web browser.

Recommendations: links, lynx, w3m.

For participating in email, I may recommend alpine (pine), but
there are many other powerful text mode mail clients that one
could try and find the most comfortable one.

Other services, such as IRC, News, or messenger services
can also be used. Just to throw some program names into the
wild: irc, BitchX, tin, elm, centericq. The ports collection
offers a wide choice of programs for FreeBSD.

Configure the OS to accomodate to the needs of the Internet
connection (DHCP, PPPoE, dial-up, WLAN - whatever is present).
A confortable dialog shell is also useful to quickly communicate
with the computer and launch the programs that the user wants
to use. Maybe a preconfigured environment (with selections
such as "mail", "web", "news", "chat" as command words) is
a good idea.

One last thing:

Regarding the "modern" web, don't assume you'll find many
pages that are accessible by blind persons. Just try some
average web pages in one of the text mode web browsers
mentioned. They only work well when the person who has
made the web page did pay attention to make it accessible
by handicapped users. This is something that is mostly
forgotten today, and the tendency with "rich web applications"
is that unrestricted access to _content_ will be less and
less common. Artificial barriers are raised by "teh Interwebs
progammerz" abusing tools (e. g. "Flash" as a replacement
for few lines of HTML). The tendency is that it's just
getting worse and worse, sadly...

I hope I could give you some inspiration on where to start
further investigations.

Magdeburg, Germany
Happy FreeBSD user since 4.0
Andra moi ennepe, Mousa, ...

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