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Published September 26, 2019 | Multidisciplinary

The Visulibre Project: Open Enabling Technologies for the Visually Impaired

When planning for a new semester, we may want to consider a variety of approaches that make learning accessible to our students. It is important to consider the needs of all of our students. In 2019, I attended 2 higher education events that examined the question of how to ensure that our training is accessible to those who may have specific needs. During one of these I discovered the Visulibre project, which puts enabling technologies in the hands of visually impaired users. I recently spoke to Miguel Ross who leads the Visulibre project based in Quebec City with hopes of learning more about their mission and activities.

Q. Can you tell us about the origins of the Visulibre project?

MR: The Visulibre project was started in 2013 with the assistance of FQCIL (Fédération québécoise des communautés et des industries du libre). The project allows visually impaired people to use computers and the Internet as a way of breaking their isolation.

Around 70% of people who cannot see are unable to find work. If you are not employed, you don’t qualify for assistance to procure visual aids. For those people receiving social assistance, they are more concerned with eating and living expenses than with purchasing a computer.

The Visulibre project provides free computers and braille peripherals to the visually impaired. These computers have been donated and refurbished using the Linux operating system.

Q. In your opinion, how can your project help college students?

MR: We lend computers like laptops to visually impaired students. It can take time for the requests for RAMQ to come through. It is important that the students have access rapidly to the tools so that they don’t fall behind in their work for the semester.

Q. How can visually impaired students order a computer from the Visulibre project?

MR: We are at the community centre at the Louis XIV residence in Quebec City every Saturday to collect equipment donations. Students can also get in touch with us by e-mail.

When the students no longer need the computer, they can return it and the computer can be used to help someone else.

Q. Do you have any messages for the teachers in our readership with regards to the use of accessible technologies or supporting students with visual impairments?

MR: It is important for teachers to be able to understand our needs. When I used to live in Montreal, I enrolled for 2 programming classes at the Université de Montréal - one on JavaScript and the other on C++ and Java.

One of my professors understood that it would take me more time to write the final exams and met with me to ensure that the assignments were feasible.

Another professor assigned us a project to create a card game, which is visual by nature and requires colours to distinguish between cards. We found another approach to making the game, but I have a feeling he was more interested in ensuring that no students had an advantage for the assignment than trying to ensure that I was successful in the course. It is important to adapt evaluations for visually impaired students and to speak with the students to see what is and what is not feasible.

Q. What kind of computers, operating system and software are you using with the visually impaired?

MR: We install the Ubuntu Linux operating system which is free and open source software on donated computers and laptops. Our clients still need to pay for their Internet connection, but they do not need to pay for the equipment.

When they are available, we also provide Braille tools like a refreshable braille display or braille embossing printers. Many of the refreshable displays cost around $2000, though there is a decent 20 cell display offered by Orbit for around $600.

A refreshable braille display with dynamic cells that form letters in braille. (Image courtesy CC-BY-SA - Michal Klajban/Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note:

A refreshable braille display contains a series of cells that pop up in a row that simulates a line of text in braille. Miguel Ross informs me that 2 pieces of software BRLTTY and Speech Dispatcher work in tandem to make this possible in Linux

We don’t receive many donations of braille tools, but we can get around this by using the ORCA screen reading software which reads the text on screen and converts it to speech output. ORCA is a free and open source alternative to the popular JAWS software.

A video with an example of Orca screen reading software using 2 different voices.

Our computers come with the LibreOffice suite of software tools which can open .doc and .docx Microsoft Word files among others. For people with low vision, it is possible to make the fonts bigger to see the text better in the file. The operating system also has accessibility options and magnification software.

The desktop environment has several options that resemble the different generations of Microsoft Windows software (like Windows XP or Windows 7), so our clients using Linux for the first time feel comfortable with the transition to Linux.

A picture of the Index Everest-D V5, a braille embosser (printer) (Image courtesy CC-BY-SA - Romina Santarelli / Secretaría de Cultura de la Nación/Wikimedia Commons)

Q. Does the Visulibre project have any partners that donate laptops or peripherals?

MR: No, for the moment we do not have any partners like this. We once received a donation of 5 Lenovo computers from Insertech, but we mostly receive donations from individuals that are getting rid of their older computers. There is a local radio station, CKRL which also provides us some publicity by running announcements to help us receive more donated equipment.

We do have some other partners, like the Fondation Caecitas which helps us to collect the computers and they take care of some of the logistics for the computers to be delivered to me.

We have been fortunate to present our project at the Technovision conference a few times, which is organized by INCA Québec, and the ADTE has invited us to their last couple open software and research conferences in Montreal and Quebec City.

Q. Do you offer your services to the Anglophone population?

MR: We haven’t had any requests yet. There shouldn’t be a problem since the operating system we use can also be installed in English.

Q. How can we make the Internet more accessible for the visually impaired?

MR: For those companies that create websites, everything you need is out there in terms of guidelines. The W3C has created these guidelines to ensure that web sites are more accessible to visually impaired users. Five minutes of extra programming work up front can save hours of time trying to retrofit the web sites with accessibility options.

The WordPress, Drupal and MediWiki (Wikipedia) content management systems are already sensitive to the needs of the visually impaired. WordPress has an accessibility plugin. People need to make sure that their images are labelled with ALT tags and that any buttons on the screen are named. These adjustments don’t change the visual experience for the sighted as only the screen readers see these ALT tags, but they make all the difference for the visually impaired.

Thank you to Miguel Ross for sharing the details of your accessible project with Profweb. Best wishes for continued success!

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