Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Orca, the ICT lifeline for Blind

With its latest features,Orca is now the best screen reader

I have been using Orca for last 3 years and alas I did not need to touch the digitally dangerous and restrictive windows since then.

I am so happy that I could break free off the absolutely useless crap called Microsoft windows and the related software like Microsoft office etc. Interestingly enough one of the best fullforms I created for windows is "Where I Never Do Operations With Safety".

Any ways enough jokes and bashing, back to the topic.

I thought I must talk about Orca because it is getting better than the best day by day and improving on its own previous featureset.

But being the state-of-the-art screen reader, oracle has stopped the funding for this project after they took over Sun Micro Systems.

This is a major concern for the daily life of many blind people including their future in jobs and professions through which they earn livelyhood. I think after reading this blog, my readers will firstly understand how important Orca is given the features I am going to list. As a result they will also understand why we should do every thing to not just keep Orca alive but developing at full speed.

So what does Orca offer to Blind computer users?

Well, as is expected basically from any screen reader, Orca integrates seemlessly with the Desktop (Gnome) on GNU/Linux.

It reads out all text and related attributes, provides spoken feedback as focus shifts from one widgit to another.

It also reads popups and message boxes requiring user input.

Looking a little further, it works really good with Office software (Open Office) and also helps to surff internet using firefox.

We must remember that unlike many proprietory software like Jaws for Windows, we get all this for free.

And yes not to mention that unlike Jaws and other proprietory software, Orca can also be localised in regional languages.

Even the Espeak speech synthesizer which Orca uses by default is free.

But that's not all to it.

The features I have mentioned before are there in every screen reader. And yes, write or wrong, almost every one uses pirated software for personal without paying for the proprietory License. This means people might argue that cost is not a major factor, although commertial or non-commertial organisations (generally) don't take chances with non-licensed software.

Never the less issue is not about cost. The important fact about Orca is that it is free (as in freedom) and there is no law violation if it is used on any numbers of computers for free.

Infact it is this freedom which has resulted into the superior features and better accessibility on GNU/Linux based desktops.

People from all around the world have contributed to Orca's development. And today here it is, the best screen reader a blind person can ever get on Linux.

Talk about the best internet accessibility and Orca with firefox is just awsom.

May it be face book or twitter, from any on-line forum to an on-line newspaper, Orca provides accessibility through Firefox with perfection.

What's more, I just installed the 2.27.92 version of Orca and now I can even interract with mouse overs!

What's more, the navigation bundle which comes as an extention to firefox is also totally accessible with orca.

the moment I press ctrl + shift + l, I get the list of links on the page as a dropdown. I know I know, this features are in Jaws as well, But remember Orca is a total replacement for jaws and what is generally excepted as good accessibility feature is incorporated in Orca.

And add to it that it is free in all sence, meaning you don't buy any license by paying fees. Yu also get the updates free.

On office productivity suite, Open office with orca just rocks.

I am particularly impressed about the level of accessibility with spreadsheets.

For example, if I type more in a certain cell than it can accomodate, Orca warns me that the text I entered is x characters longer. How amaising! I can then use the optimisation tools on the given cell for the column or row.

I can even set column and row headers so that I know the context of the information in the given cell.

All I need to do is to press capslog r for laptop or insert r for desktop and Orca will announce the column heading taking the text from the cells of the row I selected.

These are just a few important developments which have happened in orca off late. Infact these new features got added very rappidly and the speed at which orca has grown in last few months is like never before. This is all due to the dedicated programmers and accessibility experts like william walker of the accessibility department of Sun.

Joanmary is also from the same dedicated group. Infact her work on accessibility of Firefox is some thing which hardly any one can achieve in such a short span of time.

Talk about thunderbird or pidgin, or even the cd burning tool brasero, these dedicated set of developres have put their heart and brains into accessibility with orca.

I hav done a couple of huge educational projects for blind students and orca proved to be a blessing for them.

the most successful of these projects resulted into a dedicated lab for trainning blind computer users at Trivandrum, a city in south India. Insight as it is named, this project involved creating FOSS based course for blind people. I personally did 4 major faculty trainning workshops there. I also developed a plan where young blind students can study normal computer lesons at school using orca.

The project was successful in not just education but also led to employment of many blind people on desk jobs.

Following this project, I also led the true vision project about which enough has been sed on other blogs created by members of the orca mailing list.

True Vision was the biggest project ever in India for bringing computer based education to masses of blind people.

Led by me and funded by Electronic Corporation of Tamilnadu (ELCOT), it resulted into all the schools in the southern India state of tamilnadu install orca on their computers.

Besides, all the blind schools in that state were given free computers with Ubuntu and orca pre-installed.

Given all the superior features and the amount of promotive work done for orca, we should have expected that the progress will catch more momentum. I think it will certainly accelerate in terms of programming, but would take some time to regain the speed.

I am not talking of bug fixing or adding pending features. I am refering to the challenges ahead of the Orca team.

Oracle has narrowmindedly decided to shut down any further support to Orca and the programmers of the accessibility Department are thus rendered jobless.

I don't want to say any further on how senceless and careless Oracle is about orca. I won't even discuss how Oracle thinks of blind people being useless and how they don't feel a need that we as blind people don't need free information access.

Some discussions on the orca mailing list further confirm my conclusion. It seems that oracle hardly responds to any accessibility calls.

Any ways let that be a dirty past. We must look to the future.

Perhaps some people might be daydreaming about how Oracle one day might change the mind and restart the accessibility department. And how I wish that it really happens!

But we can't rely on private profit making organisations like Oracle to do much for the most important need of a blind computer user.

looking ahead

I think while people like Your's truely are doing a lot of work in educational policys using FOSS and particularly Orca for blind students, an active efert must be made to sustain a dedicated team of developers for Orca. We need able and expert leaders like William Walker to really work dedicatedly for Orca, but not at the cost of keeping such people hungry.

We have to look for options to bring in Funds.

I propose a few organisations like NL Net or Software for Public Interest (SPI) be contacted for such things.

I am myself persuing this matter with FSF India and would also try getting some big research organisations involved into Orca.

I think many people all around the world can try to help in many ways.

Orca has reached to a place where blind computer users can totally rely on it.

It is no more just a software tool. It is a lifeline for B lind people today. Given the fact that digital access to information is as important as food clothing and shelter, the only way blind people can get education and employment is through freely available accessibility tools.

And with all its features (and growing ) Orca is the only perfect choice for Linux based desktop which is free as well.