Introducing Project Ocularis: A Linux Distribution for the Visually Impaired

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SEATTLE, Washington -- July 24, 2000 -- Project
Ocularis today introduced plans to develop a
distribution of the Linux Operating System that will
allow the visually impaired to communicate, work, and
express themselves through computers as well as to
install and customize their system, independent of
sighted assistance.  Ocularis was started in response
to research on current adaptive technology, which
culminated in the editorial "The Potential of Open
Source for the Visually Impaired" (included below).  
        The Linux distribution will be released under
the GNU Public License and will run smoothly on
commonly available hardware costing less than $500. 
The basic applications that Ocularis will possess are
a word processor, calendar, calculator, basic
accounting or finance application, file manager,
Internet browser, and e-mail client.  In addition,
easy to use, all-purpose screen reading software will
be included to provide access to nearly any
console-based program.  Planning and software
development for Project Ocularis are taking place at
"";; volunteer
assistance in any field is welcome.  

The Potential of Open Source for the Visually Impaired

               By JP Schnapper-Casteras

        Adaptive technologies for the visally imparied
can be life-changing devices and have the potential to
narrow the physical limitations of blindness and low
vision through equal access to information and digital
communication.  Despite their positive possible
effects, adaptive equipment can also be a waste of
money, time, and effort if they are prohibitively
expensive or poorly designed (in a way that makes
impaired users dependent on sighted assistance). 
These devices may be similarly ineffective if their
design and the software that powers them are created
and released in a spirit that inhibits intellectual
growth and freedom -- the intended original purpose of
the technology.  In other words, the equipment defeats
the initial goals of its inventors if the software and
design of the system are are not freely available,
free in terms of cost and as in free speech. Hardware
cannot be freely available in the same manner that
software and intellectual property can be, because it
is a physical entity and manufactured product that is
not reproducible, but it can be chosen to minimize
costs for the purchaser.
        My primary disagreements with current adaptive
technology, high price, dependence on sighted
assistance, and lack of freedom, are confirmed by
several sources.

The BLYNX site
("";) states:

"Why the prevalance of obsolete screen access
1.Adaptive equipment is, by its very nature,
extremely, and often prohibatively [sic], expensive.
It is not uncommon for a blind individual to spend
twice as much on the adaptive equipment that enables
him or her to use a computer than he or she did on the
computer itself. And while the price of computer
hardware decreases over time, the price of adaptive
equipment--especially software--has steadily

2.The state-of-the-art in DOS-based screen-access
wasn't achieved until 1993/1994, just in time for
obsolescence. But, what with the 70% unemployment rate
amongst the blind, not everyone has/had the 495-595
clams it costs to purchase a state of the art
DOS-based screen reader."

Prices from National Federation of the Blind Computer
Resource List:

DOS Software:
"$395... $495... $525... $195... $150... $195...
$295... $600 to $723... $525... $295... $79... $395...
$295... $595... $100... $450."
Range: $79 to $723.

Programs for use with the Graphical User Interface:
"$495... $495... $895... $600 to $723... $795...
$1,495... $495... $595... $795... $695... $895...
$2,495... $1,195... $695... $795... $1355... $3,000...
$495... $495... $495... $495."
Range: $495 to $3,000.

Miscellaneous Software and Devices:
"$495... $895... $1,795... $2,000 to $10,000...
$150... $895... $495... $349... $600... $450...
Range: $150 to $10,000.

Software-Based Voice Synthesizers:
"$249... $175... $80"
Range: $80 to $249.

Hardware-Based Voice Synthesizers:
"$395 to $995... $665... $395... $895 to $1,295...
$995... 1,195... $349... $299... $895... $1,195...
$1,195... $310... $279... $129.95 ...$795 to $1,245...
$595... $995... $369... $395... $650... $925.55."
Range: $129.95 to $1,295.

        These prices are all in addition to the
expense of a computer and sometimes of training, an
example of dependence on sighted assistance and
perhaps poor design.  This high  cost truly does
matter in the real world; when speaking to a friend
who is currently special education teacher, she
described how the blind girl she tutors uses a
computer rarely.  She went on to say that this
infrequent usage was not due to any lack of
educational material online, but because the equipment
was outdated and slow and that new technology was too
expensive to buy.  From my own experiences with vision
therapy, I remember the outdated nature of simple
exercises done on a computer and thought about how
much more easily and efficiently the exercises could
be done if not for the cost of new equipment.
        The high cost of new equipment is completely
due to two factors: non-free software and poor choices
in choosing the cheapest hardware.  The first factor,
non-free software, is the result of a method of
software development based on proprietary source code
and charging for the software (without another means
of freely obtaining it) that I believe to be
inherently flawed.  The right to access
information--in Braille format at a library, in closed
captions on television, or on the Internet--is a
fundamental one.  Just as the services at the library
or performed by television stations are free of
charge, software that allows the visually impaired, or
anyone, to obtain information stored digitally should
also be without cost. Why restrict any person's means
to communicate freely and to acquire information, and
hopefully knowledge, let alone that of someone with
sensory limitations?        I concede that some
hardware devices are simply expensive to produce and I
realize that software developers need to eat.  I do
not mean to criticize any of the companies or
inventors who advance computer accessibility for those
with visual impairments.  I only mean to suggest that
there is a better, cheaper, freer model of developing
adaptive software and hardware solutions. 

        Current Open Source, freely available software
for the blind is immensely better than the closed
source, non-free above mentioned products. The efforts
of the Linux community, as well as other projects
focusing on software to make Linux accessible, are
generous and their results are substantial. 
Unfortunately, the free software for Linux that
provides access to the visually impaired is either
based on expensive hardware, dependent on sighted
assistance, or unnecessarily complex in its
interaction with the user.

The dependence on sighted assistance is confirmed by
which states:

"3.2 Q: Can I install Linux without sighted
A: It depends... If you have a second computer or
other device that you can use as a terminal, you might
be able to install...

3.3 Q: Can I install Red Hat eyes free?
A: At present, it's not too practical, unless modified
somehow, to install eyes free. Perhaps you get someone
to tell you what's on the screen during the
installation. ...If you are a novice, forget I
mentioned it.

3.4 Q: Which Linux distribution is best for a blind
A: There is no single answer to this question..."

        Other software packages that permit the blind
to partially or almost fully utilize Linux's command
line (text console, not graphical) can only be used if
the rest of the system, including the software itself,
was installed by a sighted person.

        Zipspeak, a version of ZipSlack, which is in
turn a derivative of Slackware, is superior in terms
of dependence on sighted assistance, but it
nonetheless requires one of a dozen hardware
synthesizers in addition to a computer, all of which
needlessly add to the system cost and are not readily
available at a local computer store.

List of speech synthesizers is from
Prices are from National Federation of the Blind
Computer Resource List:

"You must have one of the following speech
synthesizers to use ZipSpeak; you can't use it with
only a sound card."

Synthesizers:              Price:
Accent PC                  "Accent:...Price: $395 to
Accent SA                  "Accent:...Price: $395 to
Apollo 2                   "Apollo Speech
Synthesizers:...Price: $665;
additional languages $72."
Audapter                   "Audapter Speech
System:...Price: $895.
Braille and Speak          Not Listed
DECtalk Express            "DECtalk Express:... Price:
DECtalk External (older)   Not Listed
DoubleTalk LT or LiteTalk  "Double Talk LT:... Price:
                           "Litetalk:  ...based on
Double Talk PC.,, Price:
DoubleTalk PC              "DECtalk PC:...  Price:
Speakout                   "Speak Out:...Price: $650."
Transport                  Not Listed

Range:  $395 to $1,195.

        In an article at Slashdot
entitled "Interview: Answers About Blind Computer
Use", Curtis Chung, Directory of Technology for the
National Federation of the Blind, voiced his opinion
on the potential of current and future Open Source
software in the field of adaptive technology.

"[Q] What can we (the "Open Source Community") do to
make our solutions (Linux/BSD/whatever) the #1
computer solution for blind users?
[A by Mr.Chung] In order for Linux to be the number
one solution for the blind, it must be as widely
accepted as Windows in the workplace. Unless or until
that happens, Linux may be useful for some blind
individuals at home, but we, the blind, must insist on
having access to the applications used by our sighted
peers at work."

        Although I deeply respect Mr.Chung's work and
opinion, I respectfully disagree with this particular
assertion.  Saying "Linux must be widely accepted or
used by everyone in order to succeed at work" is
similar to the situation several years ago when people
said, "Macs and PCs in the same environment will be a
disaster" or "Using two word processors at the same
office will spell certain doom".  It is clear that
once certain compatability issues are overcome,
different architectures, operating systems, word
processors, and other software can coexist
effectively, and certainly without the deadlocked
technological impasse that Mr.Chung seems to suggest. 
There are many business, schools, and even software
development firms that utilize several different
operating systems and many different tools, and they
all manage to go on with their business quite well. 
Everyone uses software differently, including the
visually impaired, so the most effective computer
environment is one in which everyone is comfortable,
not one in which all software is homogeneous.

        I believe that with the Open Source
development process and a collective effort on the
part of talented software developers who are willing
to donate their time, a solution for the
above-mentioned problems, high price, dependence on
sighted assistance, lack of freedom, and to a lesser
extent overly complex interfaces, can be reached.

        I ask you,administrators, developers, and
users alike, to join and integrate your projects into
a complete Linux distribution named "Ocularis" (Latin
for "of the eyes").  Ocularis will consist of free
software from other projects that is woven together
with new, original software to create a simple,
straightforward, consistent Audio User Interface
(AUI). The distribution is released under the GNU
Public License, will utilize the Linux kernel, and may
also support Braille displays and other third party
hardware.  The target, fully functional computer
system, with the complete Ocularis distribution will
execute smoothly on easily obtainable hardware costing
less than $500.

        I hope you will join me in this project.
Ocularis is currently in the planning stage of
development, so any ideas and responses would be
appreciated. If you are interested please visit the
Ocularis web site, "";.

Linux is a trademark of Linus Torvalds.

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