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
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
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
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
TDSR. On the desktop, the screen reader has
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!
You can always subscribe to my posts through Email or Mastodon. Have a great day, and thanks for reading!