Assistive technologies in Linux - Orca

Updated: December 4, 2010

I have not seen that many articles on assistive technologies in Linux around. When you think about it, assistive technologies are fairly easy to dismiss or forget, which is quite unfair. It is not only about visually impaired people. It is about anyone who may need help beyond the classic keyboard-and-mouse approach. A rare exception to bundling assistive technologies in a very friendly manner is Knoppix Adriane, a Linux distro that comes with a screen reader built-in and enabled by default. You may also be interested in Festival, a text-to-speech synthesis program. Having started there, I'd like to expand the sub-series on assistive technologies and present Orca.


Orca is a built-in screen reader software in Gnome. The software uses various combinations of speech, braille and magnification to provide access to compliant applications. There are several reasons you may want to use Orca: you need the assistive technologies, you are teaching a class or demonstrating a system feature where narration could be particularly useful, or you may need to split your attention across multiple screens, where different media should come handy.

In this short tutorial, I will show you the menu settings and configurations available in Orca, as well as how to use it. This is by no means a comprehensive guide, but it should help you find your way around.

Start Orca

Gnome is pretty much universal, regardless of the distro chosen, so you will excuse me if I demonstrate using Lucid Lynx. Orca is located under System > Preferences > Assistive Technologies.


It's not all about Orca. You can also setup your mouse and keyboard preferences. But in this tutorial, we will focus on the screen reader. The application actually hides under the not so intuitive Preferred Applications button at the top of the Preferences window.


Next, click the Accessibility tab. Similarly, you can configure the system, Multimedia and Internet. Take a look at the Visual section. Orca may not be the only screen reader available, so you can choose from the dropdown menu. You can also tick the box Run at start to allow Orca to run the moment you login into your session.


Now, we can start configuring the tool.

Configure Orca

There are a lot of settings to go through, so please be patient, especially if you're configuring Orca for someone who can't make it on their own. Under the General tab, you can choose the keyboard layout, for Desktop and Laptop, allow Orca to close without confirmation, present tooltips, and more. You probably want to start Orca when you login, although this is kind of redundant, since we already ticked the box earlier, and you want it to speak objects under the mouse cursors.


If you enable the window to be show when running, it will show on your desktop, allowing you to re-access the preferences easily, use help or quit the application.

Main menu

Next, under the Speech tab, you can make additional changes. Enable/disable speech, decide which speech system and synthesizer to use, set pitch and volume and choose the narration voice. You can even setup seemingly small details like speak indentation and justification and progress bar updates.


And so forth. Setting up Orca is not simple or quick. You will definitely need to assess what kind of assistance you will need or be providing and configure it all accordingly. Now, for most people, this might be a little daunting, since there are a lot of options. The best bet is to have someone techy set it up for you.

I believe the path to Orca is a little convoluted and a simplified menu could make things easier, with the tricker options hidden and more common choices tweaked to defaults.

More reading

If you're interested, take a look at:

Orca: Screen Reader Guide

Accessible applications (compliant with Orca)


Orca is a very decent program, with useful features. It is not easy to locate in the menus or configure, since it requires very delicate and personal approach. Some improvements in usability and intuitiveness would be most welcome. That said, the software is fairly robust. If you do not insist on perfection, you can have Orca running and doing its job in seconds. But we should strive for perfection and make improvements.

This tutorial is not so much a step-by-step guide; it's more of a helper, to get you started and point you in the right direction. With the combination of Adriane and Festival, you can begin exploring the assistive technologies more closely and choose the best setup to meet your requirements.

I hope you like it. Now it's your turn. Help spread awareness. And think about the little things that make so much difference in life.


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