Why tools made by the blind, are the best for the blind.
For the past few hundred years, blind people have been creating amazing technology and ways of dealing with the primarily sighted world. From Braille to screen readers to canes and training guide dogs, we've often shown that if we work together as a community, as a culture, we can create things that work better than what sighted people alone give to us.
In this post, I aim to celebrate what we've made, primarily through a free and open source filter. This is because, firstly, that part of what we've made is almost always overlooked and undervalued, even by us. And secondly, it fits with what I'll talk about at the end of the article.
Braille is Vital
In the 1800's, Louis Braille created a system of writing that was made up of six dots configured in two columns of three dots, which made letters. This followed the languages of print, but in a different writing form. This system, called Braille after its inventor, became the writing and reading system of the blind. Most countries, even today, use the same configurations created by Louis, but with some new symbols for each language's needs. Even Japanese Braille uses something resembling that system.
Now, Braille displays are becoming something that the 20 or 30 percent of employed blind people can afford, and something that the US government is creating a program to give to those who cannot afford one. Thus, digital Braille is becoming something that all screen reader creators, yes even Microsoft, Apple, and Google, should be heavily working with. Yet, Microsoft doesn't even support the new HID Braille standard, and neither does Google. Apple supports much of it, but not all of it. As an aside, I've not even been able to find the standards document, besides This technical notes document from the NVDA developers.
However, there is a group of people who has taken Braille seriously since 1995. That is the developers of BRLTTY, of which you can read some history. This program basically makes Braille a first-class citizen in the Linux console. It can also be controlled by other programs, like Orca, the Linux graphical interface screen reader.
BRLTTY has gone through the hands of a few amazing blind hackers (as in increddibly competent programmers)), to land at https://brltty.app, where you can download it not only for Linux, where it's original home is at, but for Windows, and even Android. BRLTTY not only supports the Braille HID standard, but is the only screen reader that supports the Canute 360, a multi-line Braille display.
BRLTTY, and its spin-off project of many Braille tables (called LibLouis), have proven so reliable and effective that they've been adopted by proprietary screen readers, like JAWS, Narrator, and VoiceOver. VoiceOver and JAWS use LibLouis, while Narrator uses them both. This proves that the open source tools that blind people create are undeniably good.
But what about printing to Braille embossers? That is important too. Digital Braille may fail to work for whatever reason, and we should never forget hardcopy Braille. Oh hey lookie! Here's a driver for the Index line of Braille embossers. The CUPS (Common Unix Printing System) program has support, through the cups-filters package, for embossers! This means that Linux, that impennitrable, unknowable system for geeks and computer experts, contains, even out of the box on some systems, support for printing directly to a Braille embosser. To be clear, not even Windows, or MacOS, or iOS, has this. Yes, Apple created CUPS, but they've not added the drivers for Braille embossers.
Let that sink in for a moment. All you have to do is set up your embosser, set the Braille code you want to emboss from, the paper size, and you're good. If you have a network printer, just put in the IP address, just like you'd do in Windows. Once that's sunk in, I have another surprise for you.
You ready? You sure? Okay then. With CUPS, you can emboss graphics on your embosser! Granted, I only have an Index D V5 to test with, but I was able to print an image of a cat, and at least recognize its cute little feet. I looked hard for a way to do this on Windows, and only found an expensive tactile graphics program. With CUPS, through the usage of connecting to other Linux programs like ImageMagick, you can get embossed images, for free. You don't even have to buy extra hardware, like embossers especially made for embossing graphics!
Through both of these examples, we see that Braille is vital. Braille isn't an afterthought. Braille isn't just a mere echo of what a screen reader speaks aloud. Braille isn't a drab, text-only deluge of whatever a sighted person thinks is not enough or too much verbiage. Braille is a finely crafted, versitile, and customizable system which the blind create, so that other blind people can be productive and happy with their tools, and thus lessen the already immense burden of living without sight in a sighted world. And if electronic Braille fails, or if one just wants to use printed material like everyone else can, that is available, and ready for use, both to print text and pictures.
Speech matters too
If a blind person isn't a fast Braille reader, was never taught Braille, or just prefers speech, then that option should not just be available for them, but be as reliable, enjoyable, and productive an experience as possible. After all, wouldn't a sighted person get the best experience possible? Free and open source tools may not sound the best, but work is being done to make screen readers as good as possible.
In the Linux console, there are three options. One can use Speakup, Fenrir, and TDSR. On the desktop, the screen reader has been Orca, but another is being written, called Odilia. Odilia is being written by two blind people, in the Rust programming language.
If one uses the Emacs text editor, one can also take advantage of Emacspeak. This takes information not from accessibility interfaces, but Emacs itself, so it can provide things like aural syntax highlighting, or showing bold and italics through changes in speech.
There are several communities for blind Linux and open source users. There is the Blinux, the Orca mailing list, the LibreOffice Accessibility mailing list, and the Debian Accessibility mailing list.
Recently, however, there is a new way for all these groups, and sighted developers, to join together with, hopefully, more blind people, more people with other disabilities, and other supporters. This is the Fossability group. This is, for now, a Git repository, mailing list, and Matrix space. It's where we can all make free and open source software, like Linux, LibreOffice, Orca, Odilia, desktop environments, and countless other projects, as useful and accessible as possible.
Blind people should own the technology they use. We should not have to grovel at the feet of sighted people, who have little to know idea what it's like to be blind, for the changes, fixes, and support we need. We should not have to wait months for big corporations (corpses), to gather their few accessibility programmers to add HID Braille support to a screen reader. We should not have to wait years for our file manager to be as responsive as the rest of the system. We should not have to wait a decade for our screen reader to get a basic tutorial, so that new users can learn how to use it. We should not have to beg for our text editor to not just support accessibility, but support choices as to how we want information conveyed. This kind of radical community support requires that blind people are able to contribute up the entire stack, from the kernel to the screen reader. And with Linux, this is entirely possible.
Now, I'm not saying that sighted people cannot be helpful, it's the exact opposite. Sighted people have designed the GUI that we all use today. Sighted people practically designed all forms of computing. Sighted developers can help because they know graphical toolkits, so can help us fix any accessibility with that. And I'm not trying to demean the ongoing, hard, thankless job of maintaining the Orca screen reader. Again, that's not even the maintainer's job that she gets paid for. However, I do think that if more blind people start using and contributing to Linux and other FOSS projects, even with just support or bug reports, a lot of work will be lifted from sighted people's shoulders.
So, let's own our technologies. Let's take back our digital sovereignty! We should be building our own futures, not huge companies with overworked, underpaid and underappreciated, burnt-out and understaffed accessibility engineers. Because while they work on proprietary, closed-off, non-standard solutions, we can build on the shoulders of the giants that have gone before us, like BRLTTY, the CUPS embosser drivers, and so many other projects by the blind, for the blind. And with that, we can make the future of Assistive Technology open, inviting, welcoming, and free!
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