An Excellence Gateway case study
Published: 22 October 2009
This case study was produced by JISC RSC (Regional Support Centres) West Midlands on behalf of the Excellence Gateway.
Sector relevance: Specialist schools/colleges
Keywords: Improving teaching and learning, improving responsiveness to learners, visually impaired learners, creating and adapting e-learning materials, inclusive learning, additional learning support, support for learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, 14–19, meeting employers' needs, assistive technology, screenreaders
Tony Sales, a lecturer at Royal National College for the Blind in Herefordshire, has developed ‘Vinux’– an accessible version of the Linux operating system for the visually impaired.
About Royal National College for the Blind
Royal National College for the Blind is an independent residential specialist college with charitable and Beacon Status. It caters for learners aged 16+ who are blind or partially sighted – some of who have additional needs.
Courses range from GCSEs and A-levels to NVQs and BTECs in vocational subjects, such as Complementary Therapies, Customer Service and Music Technology. Skills for Life courses include Progressing into Employment, Braille and the European Computer Driving Licence qualification.
Tony Sales, developer of Vinux has an interest in open-source software and accessibility. He developed Vinux after being unable to find a fully-accessible version of the Linux operating system to suit the needs of his learners.
“I really believe in open-source software and sharing. I wanted to develop something that would help visually impaired people around the world. Students at the College often ask me for copies of commercial software like the Jaws screen reader when they leave, which I can’t provide them with. They generally can’t afford the software and have to wait for the DSA or their employer to purchase something for them, which perhaps doesn’t suit their needs and is very costly.
“Additionally, [Microsoft] Windows only has basic accessibility options, for example, the window magnifier only covers half the screen. I wanted to build on this and develop something which a visually impaired or blind user could install themselves and doesn’t cost anything.”
Tony Sales, developer of Vinux
Over several months, Tony developed Vinux – a customised version of the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. It is designed to be fully accessible to blind and partially-sighted users out of the box.
Vinux features a screenreader, full-screen magnification and support for Braille displays. It is reported to be the first English language distribution that offers a full range of pre-configured accessibility applications and a graphical user interface (GUI) for sighted users.
The GUI interface was added for a number of reasons:
- partially-sighted users (who are registered blind) can navigate the interface with the aid of magnification;
- text-based interfaces, although easier to use, still require users to learn and type complex commands; and
- additionally, sighted people often teach or support blind and partially-sighted users and, therefore, need a GUI for navigation and feedback.
There are also two types of magnification available – 2D and 3D, as not all computers support 3D desktop effects. Vinux also supports around 20 different models of Braille display – something which Microsoft Windows will not do. You can install Vinux to a hard disk or run it from a CD, USB pen drive or, in some cases, an SD card.
As soon as Vinux loads, a screenreader is activated, USB Braille displays are automatically detected and full-screen magnification can be turned on/off with a simple keystroke. Users can navigate the menus and applications using the screenreader and/or Braille display, or switch this support off and use the full-screen magnification, if required.
Tony initially trialled Vinux with one of the College’s students – a blind-from-birth, IT-literate user who was used to a traditional Microsoft Windows environment. The user was very impressed with Vinux and very quickly adapted to the operating system. He was so impressed that he wanted to move over to Linux completely. In turn, the user demonstrated Vinux to the College’s IT club who were equally impressed.
“With Vinux, new users will have to learn new key strokes but, on the whole, the basic stuff is easy to pick up. For users who are less IT literate, Vinux is no harder to use than getting to grips with [Microsoft] Windows for the first time.”
“Vinux is a great way to introduce visually-impaired users to the Linux operating system, which is a free and open-source alternative to commercial software. It’s also a good way to experience and experiment with a Linux environment safely and securely, without making any changes to the computer.”
“Open-source software offers huge advantages aside from the cost implications. Linux, for example, can be more secure than Windows and less prone to viruses. With open-source software, you can set it up yourself and adapt it any way you like.”
After releasing version 1.3.1 in February 2009 to the visually impaired community, Tony received and continues to receive very positive feedback, including comments from users who experience ‘eureka moments’. This has included feedback from the British Computer Association of the Blind:
“Exploring Vinux was a revelation. For the first time, a distribution of Linux is available to blind and partially sighted people without the assumption of technical knowledge.”
Since releasing version 1.3.1, Tony has made several modifications and version 1.52 is now available for download with Vinux 2.0 – due for release in 2009. The next stage is to pilot Vinux with a group of College staff and students – the aim will be to use it for a month without logging into Microsoft Windows.
“If the pilot is successful, I would like to offer Vinux as an option for staff and students on a voluntary basis. I think it’s important to give users the option rather than trying to force them down one route, but I am hoping that RNC [Royal National College for the Blind] staff, students and the wider VI [visually impaired] community will see the many benefits that Vinux can offer.”
- Royal National College for the Blind website
- For more information about Vinux and to download Vinux, visit the Vinux website.
- JISC Regional Support Centre West Midlands website
- For more information about this case study, email the West Midlands JISC Regional Support Centre.
Read other related case studies
- RNIB College Loughborough: Visually-impaired learners benefit from audio and synchronised text on their mobile phones
- Portland College: Testing the switching skills of learners in specialist colleges
- New College Worcester: MP3s for learners with visual impairments
Disclaimer: The Regional Support Centres (RSC) and the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) support the development of educational e-learning. In the case study, we may refer to specific products, processes or services by trade name, trademark, manufacturer or otherwise, or link to websites or supporting material. Such references are not endorsements or recommendations and should not be used for product endorsement purposes.