Accessibility on a Linux desktop is not one of the strongest points to highlight. However, GNOME, one of the best desktop environments, has managed to do better comparatively (I think).

In a blog post by Christian Fredrik Schaller (Director for Desktop/Graphics, Red Hat), he mentions that they are making serious efforts to improve accessibility.

Starting with Red Hat hiring Lukas Tyrychtr, who is a blind software engineer to lead the effort in improving Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and Fedora Workstation in terms of accessibility.

Here, let me summarise some of the important parts of the blog post.

State of Accessibility in GNOME

While I mentioned that GNOME managed to have decent accessibility support in the past, Christian mentions what happened over the years:

The first concerted effort to support accessibility under Linux was undertaken by Sun Microsystems when they decided to use GNOME for Solaris. Sun put together a team focused on building the pieces to make GNOME 2 fully accessible and worked with hardware makers to make sure things like Braille devices worked well. I even heard claims that GNOME and Linux had the best accessibility of any operating system for a while due to this effort. As Sun started struggling and got acquired by Oracle this accessibility effort eventually trailed off with the community trying to pick up the slack afterwards

In a nutshell, after GNOME 3, not a lot of concentrated efforts were put into enhancing the accessibility of the GNOME desktop.

Of course, with every desktop environment release, the community/developers try their best to improve certain aspects, but a dedicated effort wasn’t possible without proper guidance and resources.

This is where Red Hat comes in.

Hiring a blind software engineer (with plans for more) is a big deal and should go a long way to improve the state of accessibility on the Linux desktop.

Christian asked Lukas about it and here’s what he mentions:

Generally, the desktop is usable, at least with GTK, Qt and major web browsers and all recent Electron based applications. Yes, accessibility support receives much less testing than I would like, so for example, a segmentation fault with a running screen reader can still unfortunately slip through a GTK release. But, generally, the foundation works well enough. Having more and naturally sounding voices for speech synthesis might help attract more blind users, but convincing all the players is no easy work.

Overall, the fundamentals/basic options for accessibility are in place, but can use improvements to make it a seamless experience across the platform.

Plans for Accessibility Improvements

With the current efforts, I think GNOME, Fedora Workstation, and RHEL should get meaningful improvements in the coming years.

But, what kind of enhancements are we looking at?

You can read the blog post to get the details, here’s a summary of it:

  • Need for more utilities for accessibility. Currently, it is limited to extremely few tools (Orca, Speakup).
  • Focusing on applications ported to GTK 4.
  • Educating developers about focusing on the accessibility of their applications.

With Red Hat hiring a blind software engineer, I think the developers will be able to identify what to work on and how to improve it.

Naturally, with more awareness among developers, the entire Linux ecosystem will benefit (not just GNOME).

But, of course, this is great news for GNOME users and Fedora/RHEL distributions.

What do you think about this initiative by Red Hat? Let us know in the comments below.

Ankush Das

A passionate technophile who also happens to be a Computer Science graduate. You will usually see cats dancing to the beautiful tunes sung by him.