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Getting started with Orca screen reader on Gnome desktop environment on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS

Introduction to Orca

Orca is a free, open-source screen reader developed under the GNOME project. Several Linux distributions have it installed by default.

This article will introduce you to the basics of Orca on Gnome desktop environment on Ubuntu version 20.04 LTS. There might be some slight variations if you are using a different desktop environment or using GNOME on a different Linux distribution. You need to consult the manual for your Linux distribution or desktop environment.

Launching Orca

There are three ways you can launch Orca on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS. Below are the descriptions of these three methods.

  1. Use the keyboard shortcut Super + Alt + S.
  2. Type orca on a terminal window and then press the Return key. Alternatively, you can type orca in the Run dialog and press the Return key. You can use the key combination Alt + F2 to open the Run dialog and the ESC key to close it. If you launch Orca using the Run dialog, you can close it by typing the command pkill orca or killall orca on the terminal or in the the Run dialog and then pressing the Return key.
  3. Open the Settings dialog and then select Universal access. You can then toggle the screen reader on or off.

After launching Orca, it will immediately announce the title of the topmost open application window if it is accessible to Orca. Though most applications that come pre-installed with the Gnome desktop environment are accessible, some third-party applications installed by you may not be accessible to Orca.

The Orca Modifier keys

The modifier key used by Orca depends on the keyboard layout. Orca has two keyboard layouts, namely:

  1. Desktop keyboard layout
  2. Laptop keyboard layout

The Desktop keyboard layout is the default keyboard layout. Its Modifier key is the key combination Insert + KP_Insert. KP_Insert is the same as KP_0. If it is your first time using Orca, most likely you are in the Desktop keyboard layout.

The modifier key for the Laptop layout is CapsLock .

You can change the keyboard layout from the preferences section. You can open the preferences dialog from the terminal or from the Run dialog by typing the command orca -s or orca --setup and then pressing the Return key. That command will open Orca and the preferences dialog at the same time.

The Learn Mode

There is a feature in Orca referred to as Learn Mode. It is a valuable feature if you are still learning Orca. It helps you to access the documentation quickly. If you press any key in this mode, Orca will announce the pressed keystroke and the associated Orca command bound to it.

Below is a table showing the keyboard shortcuts associated with the Learn Mode. You need to first turn on Learn mode using the key combination orca modifier + H before using the commands starting in the second row.

orca modifier + HTurn on Learn Mode
F1Open Orca documentation
F2Open shortcuts that apply orca-wide
F3Open shortcuts that apply to the currently focused application
Up or DownNavigate open list of shortcuts
ESCTurn off Learn Mode

Reading documents and webpages

You can navigate through a document or an application as Orca narrates it for you. You can do that using the application's built-in caret navigation mode. Caret navigation is where a user traverses the application or document and selects text using the keyboard. For example you can use the Left and Right keys to navigate through a document reading one character at a time. Before we look at the basic navigation shortcuts, you should take note of the following:

  • According to the orca documentation, caret navigation is turned off by default in some Gnome applications. You can toggle it on and off using the F7 key.
  • Firefox doesn't work with Orca if you launch Orca after launching Firefox according to the Firefox doesn't work with Orca screen reader issue. The workaround is to launch Orca before launching Firefox or restart Firefox after launching Orca.

Below are some of the keyboard shortcuts for navigating through a document, webpage, or application.

Left and RightNavigate the document and read by character
Ctrl + Left and Ctrl + RightNavigate the document and read by word
Up and DownNavigate the document and read by line
Shift with the above commandsTo select and unselect text


This article covers the basics of getting started with Orca on Gnome desktop environment running on Ubuntu 20.04 LTS. As already mentioned, there might be slight variations if you are using a different desktop environment or Linux distribution. What we have covered here is just enough to get you started using Orca. You can roll up your sleeves and dive into the Orca documentation to get the full taste of this screen reader.

Further reading