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OS X Accessibility 101

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OS X includes some of the best accessibility options of any operating system available today, allowing the Mac to be easily used by people who have seeing, hearing or motor impairments. In this guide we’ll discuss these great accessibility options and how they can be of assistance for those that need them.


Apple and Accessibility

Apple has been on the forefront of accessibility options for over 20 years and some level of accessibility can be found in every Apple product, from the humble iPod to the Mac.

Whether this takes the form of text-to-speech, speech recognition, enhanced colours and support for assistive devices, Apple has always pushed the boundaries of what OS X can do to help those needing such assistance. Apple has won a number of awards because of this and in 2010, the company won the Dr. Jacon Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind for their work in accessibility relating to visual impairments.

There’s a great set of accessibility features that OS X has that many of us simply don’t know about. I hope that by the end of this guide you’ll have a much greater understanding of not only these useful features but also how much they can help someone with a visual, audio or motor impairment.


Finding Accessibility

Accessibility options can be found within System Preferences
Accessibility options can be found within System Preferences

You can access OS X’s Accessibility options through System Preferences. All of the confiugrable options are either located within or accessible via this preference pane.

We’ll work our way through the preference pane, covering each feature.


1. Seeing

Accessibility has three different features for users with visual impairments: Display, Zoom and VoiceOver. Each of them provide a different use and benefit depending on the nature of the impairment.

Display

Display Accessibility Options
Display Accessibility Options

Within the Display section, we’re given a few options to make the graphical interface stand out.

Inverting Colours does exactly what it suggests, every colour on the screen is inverted to its opposite so white becomes black. This applies to images as well and is ideally used for those using their Mac to read and find it more comfortable to read white text on a dark background. Whilst I don’t use this feature, I do use a text editor that provides a similar option as I find I suffer far less from eyestrain with a dark background and lighter text.

Inverting colours can make reading text a lot easier
Inverting colours can make reading text a lot easier

Using Grayscale, again, provides a way of altering the colours on screen and desaturates the image, making everything grayscale. Similar to inverting colours, this alters the colour output.

Selecting grayscale will desaturate the colours on your display
Selecting grayscale will desaturate the colours on your display

Enhance Contrast artificially increases the contrast using software that your display might otherwise not be able to do. Although it results in a loss of image quality, it can reduce the appearance of background images as well as allowing text to stand out more, which aids in reading.

Enhanced contrast can make textured backgrounds appear solid and text easier to read
Enhanced contrast can make textured backgrounds appear solid and text easier to read

Tip: With the exception of the cursor size, these options only alter the final image that you see. If you take any screenshots with any of these function enabled then they will still appear normally. I’ve had to artificially invert the colours and photograph my display in order to provide you with example images!

Zoom

Zoom provides a useful set of tools to zoom in on areas of the screen that might be harder to read
Zoom provides a useful set of tools to zoom in on areas of the screen that might be harder to read

Depending on the size and resolution of your Mac’s display, it might be harder to read smaller text or images. One way of managing this is using OS X’s zoom function.

You can enable or disable keyboard shortcuts which allows you to use ⌥⌘8 to toggle Zoom on or off. Try this now and then use either ⌥⌘= or ⌥⌘- to zoom in or out.

If you prefer using your trackpad or mouse’s scroll wheel, you can enable scroll gestures in the next option. This feature lets you use a single key to hold down (by default, it’s the Control key) and when you scroll up or down on your trackpad or mouse, the screen will zoom as well.

Should you use the Zoom feature, you can have it follow the focus of the keyboard so as you type, the zoom will keep fixed on the text you’re entering. Likewise, pressing tab to the next text field automatically moves the zoom for you as well.

There’s two different zoom styles, the first being the whole screen zooms in. A relatively new feature is Picture-in-picture. It’s similar to the loupe tool found in Preview, iPhoto and Aperture and turns your cursor into a magnifying glass.

Zoom can include a Picture-in-picture, similar to the Loupe tool in Preview, iPhoto or Aperture
Zoom can include a Picture-in-picture, similar to the Loupe tool in Preview, iPhoto or Aperture

We’ll cover VoiceOver in more detail a little later.


2. Hearing

Audio

OS X includes some audio tools to make hearing what your Mac has to say easier
OS X includes some audio tools to make hearing what your Mac has to say easier

You’re able to configure OS X to flash the screen when an alert triggers. There are many alerts that can happen that we simply don’t know about because we don’t hear the alert sound. You can also have OS X flash the screen when the alert sound is triggered to provide a visual way of an alert.

To see what the alert flash looks like you can press the Test screen flash button.

Although primarily to assist those with hearing impairments, it is a useful function to have and compares to how the iPhone’s vibrate function works when it needs to alert you of something without making a sound. The alert flash is useful to have enabled if you’re often using your Mac with the sound disabled (such as a library or place of work).

Within this section you’re also able to force the audio output to play as mono which will assist those with a hearing impairment in one ear and it will remove any stereo sound effects (such as games and movies) being played.


3. Interacting

Keyboard

Customising the keyboard to suit your typing style and preferred way of triggering function keys is straightforward in OS X
Customising the keyboard to suit your typing style and preferred way of triggering function keys is straightforward in OS X

The keyboard can be a very complicated way of interacting with a computer if you have certain forms of motor impairments. To assist users with this, Apple provide a few options in the way of Sticky Keys and Slow Keys.

Sticky Keys enables a toggle function for modifier keys (such as Command and Option) so you don’t need to hold down the key to perform a shortcut. Instead of holding down the Command key and pressing Q to quit an app, with Sticky Keys enabled you can just press the Command key and it’s held by OS X until you press a second key.

Slow Keys adds a delay to pressing a key. With it enabled, a key can only be triggered if it’s pressed and held down for longer than normal. The delay can be changed within the options for Slow Keys and allows an easier way of interacting with the keyboard.

Mouse & Trackpad

Apple's Trackpads are very customisable and easy to use with Accessibility options
Apple's Trackpads are very customisable and easy to use with Accessibility options

So we’ve covered some useful accessibility options when it comes to the keyboard, but what about the mouse and trackpad?

Mouse Keys provides an alternative way of moving the cursor by using the number pad of your Mac’s keyboard as a controller. With it enabled, 8 moves the cursor up, 2 moves it down, 4 moves it left and 6 moves it right.

In addition to customising the double click speed of the mouse or trackpad, you can also specify ignoring the built-in trackpad of a portable Mac when an external one is present. This was actually a very useful feature in earlier versions of OS X that has since migrated from the Mouse preferences to here. With it turned on, you can use an external mouse and the built-in keyboard of your Mac without worrying that resting on the trackpad will make the cursor jump about.

Something that might be useful for everyone are the Trackpad Options… that are available.

You can not only adjust the scrolling speed of the trackpad when you’re using two fingers to scroll but also disable inertial scrolling. This is a feature of OS X that mimics iOS’ scrolling whereby flicking the trackpad would scroll and slow down to a halt rather than immediately stop when your fingers are lifted. Some people aren’t a fan of internal scrolling so if you’re one of them, you can disable it here.

Lastly, you can also change how OS X controls dragging. By default, you press and hold the trackpad to drag a window. With Drag Lock, you double-tap the trackpad (tap, not click) to enable Drag Lock and it will let you drag the window around . But, when you lift your finger, it doesn’t stop the dragging, letting you go back to the trackpad and move it some more. Once you’re finished you then tap again to release it.

Mouse Options only provides one useable option which is adjusting the scrolling speed.

Tip: It’s important to note that these options can be different depending on the type of input device you’re using.

Speakable Items

Speakable Items provides advanced voice recognition and speakable navigation on your Mac that's built right into OS X
Speakable Items provides advanced voice recognition and speakable navigation on your Mac that's built right into OS X

Imagine interacting with your Mac using your voice. It sounds very sci-fi, yet it’s something OS X has been able to do for a long time now with its own built-in speech recognition.

In a nutshell, Speakable Items allows you to say commands rather than use a keyboard and mouse. To enable it, turn Speakable Items on and then select Calibrate…

Calibrating Speakable Items is needed so that it can understand you better. Unlike features such as Siri and Dictation, Speakable Items doesn’t connect to the internet and access a huge server that can perform advanced recognition without the need to set it up. Speakable Items uses slightly older technology so you’ll need to calibrate it first to get the most out of it.

Calibrating Speakable Items will improve accuracy when issuing commands
Calibrating Speakable Items will improve accuracy when issuing commands

Once enabled, you can set up a Listening Key, usually Esc, which will begin listening, sort of like holding the home button down on a Siri-enabled iPhone or iPad. Unlike Siri, however, you can have your Mac constantly listen for your commands as long as you say a keyword beforehand.

Let’s give Speakable Items a try. Enable the feature and perform the calibration. Once you’re done and you’re ready to begin, ask your Mac to tell you a joke.

You can choose to either press a key to have your Mac listen for commands or by using a keyword, such as Computer
You can choose to either press a key to have your Mac listen for commands or by using a keyword, such as Computer

Amazing, isn’t it! It’s not as versatile or as clever as Siri but for those needing to use this feature then it can be incredibly useful.

Tip: There’s such a range of commands, scripts and features that Speakable Items has that it’s worth spending time going through its preferences in greater detail than what we’re doing here.

Before we continue, there’s two options that Accessibility has: Enable access for assistive devices and Show Accessibility status in menu bar.

Assistive devices provides additional ways of interacting with OS X via various scripts and clever software features. Certain assistive devices can be programmed to trigger scripts to open certain menus that are otherwise unavailable. You may have come across this feature before when using software such as Moom which, in order to work, requires the feature to be enabled.


4. VoiceOver

VoiceOver appears to have only a few options but in actual fact there's a whole other app to use
VoiceOver appears to have only a few options but in actual fact there's a whole other app to use

A long-standing feature of OS X is VoiceOver. VoiceOver is often mistaken as the text-to-speech function of OS X and it’s easy to see why. VoiceOver, however, is designed to do more than simply say text we’ve selected. It’s a whole other way to interact with elements and provides an audio feedback for menus, toolbars and windows, going beyond just reading text.

Starting VoiceOver

VoiceOver’s preferences appear somewhat sparse at first but this is because VoiceOver has a dedicated utility that is accessible through either here or through the Utilities folder.

Using VoiceOver

Enabling VoiceOver is easy, you can either enable it through the preferences here or, alternatively, by pressing ⌘ F5. Once you enable VoiceOver, you’ll see a message along the bottom of the display alerting you to this.

VoiceOver prompts are displayed in a grey bar along the bottom of your screen
VoiceOver prompts are displayed in a grey bar along the bottom of your screen

With VoiceOver enabled, you can tab between different clickable elements and VoiceOver will say what each menu item, button or tab is. Open System Preferences and give it a try. As you tab through each Preference pane, VoiceOver will read each preference name as well as the type of element, in this case these are all buttons.

VoiceOver displays a black line around any interactive elements and your Mac then tells you exactly what element you're viewing
VoiceOver displays a black line around any interactive elements and your Mac then tells you exactly what element you're viewing

Tip: To get to grips with VoiceOver, Apple provides a feature called VoiceOver Training. VoiceOver is an extremely powerful tool and has many, many options - more than we’ll be covering in this guide. If you want to learn more about VoiceOver then this training feature is a great way to do so.

VoiceOver Utility

VoiceOver Utility is where we can configure all the customisable options of this great accessibility tool
VoiceOver Utility is where we can configure all the customisable options of this great accessibility tool

You can launch VoiceOver Utility either by the Accessibility preferences or through the Utilities folder located in Applications. Using this comprehensive utility, you can customise the voice feedback with extreme granularity. Everything from the amount of feedback the speech provides to the pitch and rate of the voice.

General provides you with options to customise the greeting VoiceOver provides as well as whether you’d like to use a service called Portable Preferences. For those who would be using multiple Macs and require accessibility options, you can customise them on one Mac and, using Portable Preferences, store them on a USB stick or other storage device and take it with you to another Mac. As soon as you load them, all your required options are automatically set.

Verbosity is where you can customise how much feedback the Mac’s voice can provide. Sometimes it can be a little too much to hear every menu item listed but thankfully you can customise it as you see fit. Additionally, you can adjust which announcements the Mac speaks, such as if a modifier or caps lock key is pressed.

Verbosity provides customisable options for how much information you're provided with
Verbosity provides customisable options for how much information you're provided with

Speech covers all the customisable options regarding the voice that your Mac uses. You can select the voice to use, the default being Alex, and adjust the rate, pitch, volume and intonation of the voice. I found that default settings for Alex gave him a voice that spoke so quickly it was hard to keep up! You can also adjust pronunciations for certain characters such as smiley emoticons and characters such as “&”, which you’d rather hear as “and” than “ampersand”.

Customising the Mac's speech option is easy and can range from the rate of talking to the pitch and even the inflections it simulates
Customising the Mac's speech option is easy and can range from the rate of talking to the pitch and even the inflections it simulates

Navigation allows us to customise how we want the mouse and keyboard to control navigation once we have VoiceOver enabled. If we want to alter how using the VoiceOver cursor works then this is the panel to do it in.

You might not completely like how VoiceOver navigates through elements but you can change it to suit you
You might not completely like how VoiceOver navigates through elements but you can change it to suit you

Web provides options to use when using VoiceOver in conjunction with browsing the web. Unfortunately a lot of web pages aren’t designed with accessibility in mind but with VoiceOver, we’re able to customise our experience to be the best possible one. Options such as whether VoiceOver should navigate images or if we want to know the progress of a loading web page are all ones we can alter.

Many people primarily interact with web pages so being able to customise how VoiceOver works is something that is done through the utility as well
Many people primarily interact with web pages so being able to customise how VoiceOver works is something that is done through the utility as well

The Web Rotor feature within this section provides quick access to common areas we’d want to navigate through using the Trackpad via a nifty feature we’ll look at shortly called Trackpad Commander.

Sound just allows us to customise whether we’d like to hear sound effects and what the default output device would be. Whilst we might not have any speakers connected, it means the use of an assistive device that helps with hearing can be used solely for VoiceOver, eliminating any other noise.

Further customisation of sound related to VoiceOver includes being able to output the voice to another audio device
Further customisation of sound related to VoiceOver includes being able to output the voice to another audio device

Visuals lets us control features such as the caption panel that’s displayed at the bottom of the screen when VoiceOver is in use as well as the VoiceOver Cursor.

If you don't like the appearance of the visuals of VoiceOver (such as the caption at the bottom of the screen) then there are a number of options to tweak
If you don't like the appearance of the visuals of VoiceOver (such as the caption at the bottom of the screen) then there are a number of options to tweak

Commanders covers a number of hidden gems in VoiceOver. One such gem is a feature called Trackpad Commander. With VoiceOver enabled, you can either enable it through VoiceOver Utility or by holding down Control-Option and then rotating two fingers on the trackpad 90 degrees clockwise. Trackpad Commander turns your trackpad into a representation of the current screen of your Mac. Instead of dragging the cursor to where you want it to be, you simply touch the area of the trackpad instead. So if you wanted to access the Apple Menu, for example, you’d tap the top-left corner of your trackpad. From there, you can then select the menu or button you want to. More than that, once you’ve selected an area, you can’t drag the cursor out of that area - it’s like fine tuning the area you want once you’ve selected it.

Commanders is a great feature of VoiceOver and introduces a whole new way to interact with your Mac
Commanders is a great feature of VoiceOver and introduces a whole new way to interact with your Mac

With Trackpad Commander enabled, we can rotate between all the interactive elements and filter them to what we’d prefer to switch through by simply rotating two fingers on the trackpad.

The number pad (if you have a Mac with an external keyboard) can be set up to do the same thing using NumPad Commander. This way we can also select between various areas that VoiceOver can assist with using the number pad if you don’t have a trackpad available.

With VoiceOver and Trackpad Commander enabled, you can use the Trackpad as an additional way of filtering the content you want to navigate with, making working your way through a web page easier
With VoiceOver and Trackpad Commander enabled, you can use the Trackpad as an additional way of filtering the content you want to navigate with, making working your way through a web page easier

Braille provides extensive options for the use of 3rd party USB or Bluetooth braille displays. You’ll notice that some of the other features of VoiceOver Utility have Braille options as well and OS X has exceptional support for braille devices.

OS X includes some fantastic support for USB and Bluetooth braille devices
OS X includes some fantastic support for USB and Bluetooth braille devices

Activities is a new feature that was first introduced in OS X Lion. It allows you to customise each of the preferences on an app by app basis. So if you’re wanting to make sure VoiceOver had a slower paced voice in Mail and Messages but you knew Safari so well that you’d have no trouble with a more increased pace then you can customise it to suit you.

To add an activity, simply click the + button and give it a name. In the example I’ve provided, I chose “Messages”. Once you’ve done that, you then customise the VoiceOver settings. I’ve reduced the speed of the voice feedback to make it easier to understand.

Activities allow users to customise VoiceOver settings on a per-app basis
Activities allow users to customise VoiceOver settings on a per-app basis

Once you’ve set up your activity, you now select the apps you want to use these settings for. You can specify multiple apps, in this case I’ve selected Mail and Messages.

If you find the settings almost what you’d want to use for another app you can duplicate them using the settings cog, as well as being able to reset them back to default.


Wrapping Up

Despite this comprehensive guide, there’s still so much more that OS X provides in the way of accessibility options. It’s amazing to see the level of support Apple provides in aiding users with audio, visual and motor impairments so that they can still easily use OS X.

If you or anyone you know has any experience using accessibility in OS X, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.


Further Reading

If you’re wanting to know more about Accessibility, I’ve included a number of useful links below that you can read through to provide even more information. Many of these links also include some great videos that demonstrate just how good OS X is when it comes to accessibility.

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