I am looking for a Linux distro that is accessible to someone who is totally blind. I am aware of Vinux and Sonar GNU, but the former is dormant and the latter is discontinued. What is out there that both is current and also not likely to go away? This search is also satisfied by a mainstream distro like Debian or Ubuntu plus this or that application (like Orca and Lynx); just name which distro, and which app.
As noted in the question, there have been several Linux distributions aimed at blind and visually impaired users, many of which were neglected for a long time or even abandoned.
In early 2017, Vinux announced plans to merge with Sonar, using Fedora as a basis. That was the last thing I heard about this.
TalkingArch is or was "a respin of the Arch Linux live iso modified to include speech and braille output for blind and visually impaired users". The latest version dates from 2017 and the Arch wiki points out that "TalkingArch project is dead since 2017". It was succeeded by Tarch (see below). Update 22.10.2021: The link to the Talking Arch page now redirects to the wiki page "Install Arch Linux with accessibility options".
Speakup, which is or was a set of tools for several Linux distributions, has not seen any updates for a number of years.
Oralux was based on Knoppix and included BRLTTY, Emacspeak, Yasr, Speakup and speech synthesiser for several languages. It was last updated in 2006 or 2007.
Some alternatives that are still being maintained are:
- Luwrain, which describes itself as "A platform for the creation of apps for the blind and partially-sighted". It has ISOs for 32-bit and 64-bit systems and bootable ISO images. Version 1.2.1 was released in May 2019.
- Tarch, "the new talking arch livecd project" succeeded Talking Arch. Its latest version is 2019.06.22, released in June 2019. Update 22.10.2021: Tarch is no longer available.
- There is also ADRIANE, "Audio Desktop Reference Implementation and Networking Environment", available on Knopper.net, the same website where you can find Knoppix.
- Update 22.10.2021: The newest linux distro focussing on visually impaired users appears to be Accessible-Coconut, which is based on Ubuntu and was first released in the summer of 2020.
Using a distribution that was specifically developed with blind users in mind is not the only option. The decisive aspect is the desktop environment and the availability of packages that blind users need. The Gnome desktop was traditionally the desktop of choice for anybody with accessibility needs. Gnome 3 was a setback with regard to accessibility, which made Mate (a continuation of Gnome 2) the better choice for many years. However, I doubt that this is still the case. For example, I can't find any dedicated accessibility page on the MATE website, whereas GNOME at least has an Accessibility Team.
Have a look/listen/touch at http://www.knopper.net/knoppix-adriane/index-en.html .
It is included in KNOPPIX. The main developers wife is blind, so you can be pretty sure it is tried and tested.
Braille-Support is included.
Personally, as a person that can see, I have abused KNOPPIX to install my first Debian-System, as the Debian-Installer at that time was hard to use (for me).
It was really helpful as a rescue-system time and again.
And it's a good distro to borrow dotfiles from, IMO.
Somewhat related: a braille keyboard for smartphones.
the Slint Linux distribution that I maintain is accessible with a Braille device as well as speech, during installation and usage.
Slint Linux is currently based on Slackware version 14.2, includes up to date accessibility software for the console and the desktops, including Mate 1.22 which is fully accessible.
To know more:
Mailing list (registration mandatory):
Yes, there are two distributions.
Accessible coconut for international users
BeLin for hungarian users only.
Accessible coconut comes from India, contains GNOME3 and Mate desktop environments, english support is so good. BeLin is specialized only for hungarian users, based on Hungary-specific services.
Both distributions are based on Ubuntu, but they are independent initiatives. BeLin is the oldest, about 12 years old with interesting services, Accessible coconut is much newer. Both are good distributions for the blind. If you need hungarian-related distributions with hungarian homepage, hungarian community etc, I recommend BeLin; if you need an international distribution, I recommend Accessible Coconut.
BeLin covers "beszélő linux" (talking linux), homepage: belin.hu.
Accessible coconut is available here
Because I am hungarian and I have got language-specific problems with Accessible coconut (I could not give my password) I am using BeLin. But for BeLin there is no english homepage. If you try use google translator, you can see it: http://belin.hu/
Because there is only one developer, he does not plan to make an internationalized version. I think BeLin is better, but you should probably use Accessible Coconut.
The only accessible Linux distro I can recommend really is Accessible-Coconut, a more updated alternative to Vinux. Vinux would crash a lot on some systems and is generally unstable, not to mention obsolete, the current version is based on ubuntu 14.04 lts which has since been discontinued. The current version of Accessible-Coconut is based on Ubuntu 20.04 and has the same sounds for those who have been using that particular distro.
I've heard Ubuntu Mate is also fully accessible but I have no idea how much of that statement is true. For one thing, installation on Virtual Box is not easy especially for Mate. Gnome and Unity are fine.
Accessible-Coconut uses the Mate desktop by default and I can assure you, you will be glad to know that apps are in categories: internet, music and video, system tools etc. Better yet, when you install a new app, let's take DropBox, it will appear in the internet section or you can just search for it. I only just heard of Accessible-Coconut 2 days ago and love using it, furthermore if you choose to install it on a real computer, boot the machine via the installer USB and finish installing the operating system. You will get a surprise, as it also has an audible bootloader that will play once to let you know the operating system has started booting. There is a comprehensive user guide stored on the desktop and there are lots of great apps to try. By all means try Accessible-Coconut and see.
More options for accessibility features to give a spin at are Fedora, Debian (as mentioned above), and possibly Devuan. Fedora is currently on version 35 at time of writing and is running GNOME 40.1 including Orca version 40.1 released some time in 2021. Debian still contains the talking installer, which can be accessed by booting the installation media and after the 2 beeps, depending on your BIOS or UEFI, press down arrow 5 times then press Enter to boot with speech turned on. Furthermore, if you install Debian this way, Orca and other accessibility packages are turned on during login and on the login screen, meaning you have an accessible desktop right out of the box.
For maximum accessibility, though, MATE works really well.
I've spent the whole of last year playing with various distros and these are my findings. Advanced users may want to try Arch now that it has a guided installer.
One thing I'll say that people should bear in mind, the OS's may get newer, but it's all in development as well.
Orca, for example, from my understanding, doesn't get a lot of frequent updates. This, therefore, doesn't allow for being able to be 100 percent productive as a Linux user, same as speakup.
It's sad that the less open source products have far more updated screen readers which can handle the mass of changes that are made to apps.
With Linux, at least from my latest findings, due to the lack of updating, users have to either do without, or modify the code themselves to get the result they are looking for.
What needs to happen is that the blind and visual impairment community at large, in order to get things more updated for accessibility, needs to speak out to these other Linux distributions developers. If we do that, and let them know hey, we need either them, or the Orca development team, to really be up to date more, that would help.
Now having said that, I've said for years with any software whether, it be on Linux or any other platform, if software is not updated to reflect the new changes, or even the new kernels. Until that happens, that's why it's so hard to find fully accessible Linux distros especially when for one, the development team for Orca for example is small. They are nowhere near as teamed as say NVIDIA for Windows, or Voiceover for Mac, or for a better Windows comparison, Narrator.
However, this is not to deter anyone from using Linux, but a suggestion that we need to be a bit more alert and vocalize our feelings about these things.