About a year ago, I felt a need to try linux on my PC. I was unhappy with the direction that Microsoft was going and had a desire to move on from the Windows operating system. So, I downloaded and burned an Ubuntu 12.04 image onto a DVD and tried out the live feature. I was able to get orca, (the free screenreader that shipped with Ubuntu) running with a keystroke and I played around with it. When I felt the limitations of the live environment, mainly the slow loading speeds, (the live environment runs directly from the DVD), I decided to install it.
Everything went fine during the installation process, I was able to partition my drive to preserve my Windows installation allowing me to boot into it whenever I liked. (This is known as duel booting.) I was of two minds about this new installation, I liked the fast loading speeds now that I was running from my hard drive and I liked the software that came pre-packaged with Ubuntu. Getting used to Orca was a bit frustrating at first, but once I realized that it was very similar to NVDA, I soon picked it up. Those who use NVDA will know eSpeak, the free synthesizer provided with it, well it is also provided with Orca. It is not so simple as it is in windows to purchase and install voices into Orca. So users of linux are stuck using eSpeak as of this time. I am told that this is possibly being worked on, but this is only hearsay. Anyway, I was able to use Ubuntu, but the speech lagged and there were other issues leading to me dropping it. So, in mid 2014, I once again decided to try linux, this time I would try a distribution known as Sonar GNU Linux, which is designed to be more accessible, and contains other software which we discuss in the next section.
Sonar GNU Linux
What is Sonar GNU Linux?
Sonar GNU Linux is a distribution of linux which is designed to be accessible to everyone. It is built off of Manjaro which is built off of Arch linux. Like Ubuntu, Sonar uses the Orca screenreader. However, where Ubuntu uses the Unity desktop, Sonar uses the Gnome desktop. This means that the accessibility issues I had with Unity were now a thing of the past. Gnome also has a built-in screen magnifier which is very helpful to low vision users. There is also an on-screen keyboard and a software package that allows one’s webcam to serve as head and eye tracking hardware. So not only is Sonar accessible to blind and visually impaired users, It is also accessible to those with dexterity issues, low motor skills and/or paraplegics. Don’t take all of this from me, visit their site by clicking the link at the beginning of this section.
Installing Sonar GNU linux: Screenreader Navigation Issues
As this section title suggests, there were some critical issues in the installation process. When you burn the Sonar image to a DVD or write it to a bootable USB stick, You have the live environment, kind of like Ubuntu, except that orca is started automatically. I found two ways to install Sonar on that live environment, one being a terminal installer, (which opens up a terminal emulator and therein contains a semi-graphical interface in which you are able too review the text and make choices with the arrow keys), and a fully graphical installer. Still a linux newbie, I decided on the graphical installer hoping that it would be the same process I went through in installing Ubuntu. Once again, I wanted to allocate a partition for installing linux whilst preserving my windows installation.
The graphical installer was very close to what was offered by Ubuntu but has some navagation issues that the Ubuntu installer did not have, particularly the partition editor. I must note that if you are not going to partition your disk manually, (i.e. you are going to allow the installer to make those choices automatically), you might not run into these issues. The most serious issue was being stuck in the size field where you enter a size for the new partition. Tabbing would simply do nothing and using the arrow keys would adjust the value up and down. If I were not partially sighted and able to use the mouse to navigate away from this field, this would present a problem. Another issue was the region selector for setting your time zone. There were two comboboxes, one to select the continent and the second to select the region. These boxes would hang when trying to activate them. This is a minor problem, as this can be adjusted post-install.
I have since tried the second installer, the terminal emulator and have run into issues using it as well. Mainly just lack of response when arrowing around to the different options or choices presented. I must note that the developers are aware of these issues and are working to get them resolved.
Just as you update your Windows or Mac OSX installation, so must you do for Sonar. Why update? To fix bugs, patch security issues, get updated packages and so on. Sonar has an update manager which you can access easily by pressing the Windows key, (in linux lingo, known as the Super key), and typing update and pressing the return key. This will open an interface where you can arrow through the updates that are available and tab down to the apply button. Once again, a tabbing issue, I was unable to tab to the apply button, and was forced to use the mouse instead. You are then prompted to enter your password to begin the update. After a couple of minutes, the update will fail citing an unexpected error. I found out later this is due to missing PGP keys. What are PGP keys? I honestly don’t know. I know that developers use them to sign software packages as a security measure. There is a fix, and that’s to download and import the required keys, which is outside the scope of this article.
Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird Issues
At first there were issues in Firefox. Thunderbird worked well and since there is a windows version, I use it regularly now as my mail client. The issues in Firefox were mostly resolved by updating Orca.
Is Sonar Worth Using As A Daily Working Operating System?
Undoubtedly yes. Sonar has a great support mailing list which contains invaluable information. They also have an IRC channel with people who are willing to help you fix your issues. I found that most encouraging, since fixing Windows issues can be a real chore. I found that I was less frustrated when the occasional problem arose because there was a community there to help me fix them. I was able to use some of the same tools in linux that I use under windows, such as Audacity and Dropbox. I even edited a podcast or two under linux.
If you are looking for an accessible operating system with a great community where you can get support and become involved, head on over to http://sonargnulinux.com and try it out for yourself. Expect the occasional problem, but through the community resources, you will most likely be able to fix it and get back up and running. You can expect a learning curve if you’ve never used linux before but it is very rewarding when you finally figure it out.