Response to “Why Linux Is More Accessible Than Windows and MacOS”

Today, I came across an article called Why Linux Is More Accessible Than Windows and macOS. Here, I will give responses to each point of the article. While I applaud the author’s wish to promote Linux, I think the points given are rather shallow and very general in nature, and could be given about any computing operating system comparison.

1. The Power of Customization

In this section, the author argues that, while closed source systems do have accessibility options, people with disabilities, (who the author calls “differently abled, which some people with disabilities would consider ableism due to the fact of differently abled feeling more like inspiration porn), have to compromise on what modifications they can make to their closed source operating systems. This can be true, but from my experience using MacOS, Windows, iOS, Android, and Linux, closed source systems have a wider community of people with disabilities using them, thus have addons and extensions to allow for as few compromises to the user’s experience as possible.

Another point that must be kept in mind is that Linux is not the most user-friendly OS yet. The modifications that can be made with Linux are more than in MacOS and Windows, yes. But I, for example, want to hold down the Space bar and have that register as holding the Control key. I probably cannot do that in Windows and MacOS. I surely can do it in Linux, but it would take a lot of learning about key codes and how to change keyboard maps throughout the console and X/Wayland sessions. The GUI will not provide this ability. The best I can do with the GUI is change Capslock to Control.

Also, let’s say a new user installs a distribution like Fedora Linux, and needs a screen reader, or any accessibility service. The user has done a little homework, so knows to turn on Orca with Alt + Super + S. The user then launches firefox from the “run application” dialog. And it doesn’t work. Nothing reads. Or the user runs a media player, and gets the same result. Why is this? I’ll spare you the arduous digging needed to find the answer. In the personalization menu of a desktop’s system menu, or in the Assistive Technologies dialog, there is a checkbox which needs to be checked in order to even enable the assistive technology to work correctly with the rest of the system. The user has to know that it’s there, how to get to it in the chosen desktop environment, and has to know how to check the box and close the dialog. This, before even doing anything else with their system.

This means that, out of the box, on almost all Linux distributions, this one key shows that the Linux GUI, by nature of needing this box to be checked, is hostile to people with disabilities. Can distribution maintainers check this box by default? Yes. Do they? No. Does this box even need to be there? No. Assistive Technologies could be enabled by default, with advanced users, after receiving warning in comments of a configuration file, able to disable it, only via changing the configuration file.

2. Linux Is Stable and Reliable

About fifteen minutes ago, I was using Gmail within the latest Google Chrome on Fedora Linux. Suddenly, the screen reader, Orca, stopped responding as I tried to move to the next heading in an email. I switched windows, and nothing happened. I got speech back in a good 20 seconds, but that shows that Linux isn’t quite as stable as the author may believe. At least, not every distribution.

My experience is my own; I do not claim to be an expert in Linux usage or administration. But this is still my experience; while Linux is stable, and I can use it for work purposes, it is not as stable, especially in the accessibility department, as Windows or MacOS. I would say, though, that it is more usable than MacOS, where just about anything in Safari, the web browser, results in Safari going unresponsive for a good five seconds or more.

Another important point is that while many developers hammer away at the core of Linux, how many people maintain ATSPI, the Linux bridge between programs and accessibility services? How many people make sure the screen reader is as lean and performant as possible? How many people make sure that GTK is as quick to give information on accessibility as it is to draw an image? How many people make sure that when a user starts a desktop, that focus is set somewhere sensible so that a screen reader reads something besides “window”? My point is, open source is full of people that work on what they want to work on. If a developer isn’t personally impacted by accessibility needs, that developer is much less likely to code with accessibility in mind. So let’s stop kidding ourselves into thinking that overall work on Linux includes even half the needed work on accessibility specifically.

While Linux’s accessibility crawls towards betterment at about one fix per month or two, Windows and MacOS have actual teams of people working specifically on accessibility, and a community of disabled developers working on third-party solutions to any remaining problems. Do all the problems get fixed? No, especially not in MacOS. But the fact that the more eyes on a problem there are, the more things get noticed applies significantly to accessibility.

3. Linux Runs on Older Hardware

This section is one I can agree with completely. Linux running on old hardware is what will drive further adoption when Windows 11 begins getting more features than Windows 10. This is even more important for people with disabilities, who usually have much less money than people without disabilities, so cannot upgrade computers every year, or even every three or five years.

4. Linux Offers Complete Control to the Users

This is true if the user is an advanced Linux user. If the user is just starting out with Linux, or even just starting out with computers in general, it is very false. How would it feel to be trapped in a place without a gate, without walls, without doors, without windows? That’s how a new computer user would feel when dealing with Linux, especially if the person is blind, and thus needs to know how to use the keyboard, what the words the speech is saying mean, what all the terminology means, but not even knowing where the Space bar is, or even how to turn the computer on.

This is a huge issue for every operating system, but was somewhat solved by MacOS by adding a wonderful tutorial for VoiceOver, its screen reader, and guiding the user to turn it on when the computer starts, without the user having to touch a single key.

As for this piece:

#+beginquote On the other hand, Linux shares every line of code with the user, providing complete control and ownership over the platform. You can always try new technologies on Linux, given its inherent nature, compatibility, and unending support for each of its distros. #+endquote

This is practically wrong. First, new Linux users won’t understand the code that Linux “shares” with them. New Linux users will not know where to look to find this code. So, this really doesn’t help them. Open source or closed, the OS is going to be a black box to any new user. And new users are what count. If new users do not want to stay on Linux, they will not spend the time to become old users, who can then teach newer users. Also, good luck trying new technologies on Debian.

Accessibility Comparison Between Linux and Windows

Here, the author compares a few access methods. A thing the author calls “screen reader” on Linux, which I hope they know is called Orca, versus Windows Narrator, the worst option, but built in.

The author doesn’t mention NVDA on Windows, which is far more powerful than Narrator, and has several addons to enhance its functionality even further. One can add many different “voice modules” to Windows, and NVDA has plenty of addon voice modules as well, many of which are not a part of Linux, like DecTalk, Softvoice, and Acapela TTS.

Accessible-Coconut: An Accessible Linux Distribution

I’m going to be blunt here: this distribution is daded off of an old, LTS version of Ubuntu, will lack the latest version of Orca, ATSPI, GTK, and everything else. If you want something approaching good, try Slint Linux. That’s about the most user-friendly distribution for the blind out there right now. Fedora’s Mate spin is what I use, but Orca doesn’t come on at startup, and neither is assistive technology support enabled.

Linux Distros Cater to Every User Type

This summary continues the points expressed in the article, and ends with the author inviting “you” to try Linux if “you” want your computer to be more accessible. I suppose the author is pointing people to try Accessible Coconut. At this point, I would rather users do a ton of reading about Linux, the command line, Orca, all the accessibility documentation they can find, try Windows Subsystem for Linux, and then, if they want more, put Linux on a separate hard drive and try it that way. I would definitely start with Slint, or Fedora, but never with a lackluster distro like Accessible Coconut.

Devin Prater @devinprater