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A Beginner’s Guide to Accessibility on macOS

The 3rd December 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a day that is promoted by the United Nations.

In this tutorial, I’ll show you some of the assistive technologies promoted by Apple to help people with specific needs.

History

The UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities Day is intended to promote an understanding of disability issues and support the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. 

Through this annual celebration, the UN seeks to increase awareness of the benefits to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.

Apple, Macs and People With Disabilities

Apple says that it believes technology should be accessible to everyone, including Sady Paulson, who uses Switch Control on a Mac as demonstrated in this promotional Apple video.

Sady Paulson is a video editor certified in Final Cut Pro who uses Switch Control to edit films on her Mac.


Apple – Accessibility – Sady, video courtesy of Apple via YouTube

Apple says, “We believe that technology should be accessible to everyone. The most powerful technology in the world is technology that everyone, including people with disabilities, can use. To work, create, communicate, stay in shape, and be entertained. So we don’t design products for some people or even most people. We design them for every single person.”

Assistive Technology

Some people, with disabilities, are helped in their use of computers through Assistive Technology.


Apple include Assistive Technology in their software to make it more accessible to people who have particular needs. Assistive Technology helps a blind person to create a presentation and a person with a physical disability to edit a video without a traditional mouse or trackpad input device. 

Main Areas of Assistive Technology

1. Blind and Visually Impaired

VoiceOver
VoiceOver

For people with sight issues, Apple’s VoiceOver application is a screen reader application that goes beyond simple text-to-speech. Apple has deeply integrated VoiceOver into macOS meaning that it is compatible with all of the built-in apps.

VoiceOver has been developed to tell you what is on the screen and to guide your through specific actions, for example, creating a presentation, navigating between apps and editing a video. 

Apple also provides information to help developers integrate VoiceOver compatibility into their apps.

In macOS High Sierra, Apple enhanced VoiceOver to make it easier to navigate PDF documents and messages. Enhancements to VoiceOver with Safari include improved navigation of websites including automatically switching to the correct voice on visiting a website displayed in a foreign language.

As you’d expect, on a Mac it’s possible to watch films with detailed audio descriptions, too. Films with audio descriptions are identified with an AD icon in the iTunes Store.

VoiceOver supports over 100 compatible refreshable braille displays and is the first screen reader to do so. 

A refreshable braille display is an electro-mechanical device that displays braille characters by means of round-tipped pins raised through holes in a flat surface. Blind computer users who cannot use a computer monitor can use it to read text output.

Apple’s macOS allows computer users to dictate replies to emails and instructions to navigate the internet in over 40 languages. Dictation has in excess of 50 formatting and editing commands allowing you to talk to the Mac to italicise a word or a sentence, for example. Users can take this further with dictation commands to create workflows through Automator.

Siri, first introduced on iOS devices, is available on macOS and is integrated with VoiceOver. Use it to find a file and read it out aloud.

Other options, to assist partially sighted or otherwise visually impaired people, are the magnification of the cursor. To locate the mouse pointer on a large screen, shake the mouse to magnify it.

Contrast Options lets the Mac user invert the colours, enable greyscale or change the contrast options in a number of ways so that the display can be more easily seen by someone with different needs. The changes are applied systemwide.

Over the last few years, the power of Mac software and hardware has made possible some clever user interface animations. Whilst visually appealing for many, they’re not helpful to all. For those affected by the motion of screen elements, you can elect to reduce motion in areas such as Spaces, Notification Centre and the Dock.

2. Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Closed Captions
Closed Captions

For the deaf and hard of hearing, FaceTime means that people who use sign language can communicate more easily from their Mac to anyone else using an iOS device or Mac.

Since macOS High Sierra, Siri accepts questions and instructions in a new Type to Siri mode enabling use of the digital assistant through the keyboard.

Through iTunes, films, television programmes and podcasts that support Closed Captioning are shown with a CC icon. The font size and style of the captions can be changed by the Mac user.

For those who miss sound through one of their ears, stereo music is not appropriate for them. Rather than distinct left and right audio channels, perhaps with different audio through each, macOS helps by playing both left and right audio channels through both sides of the headphones with the ability to balance the volume between the two.

System alert sounds may easily be missed so, if attention is needed, Screen Flash can be turned on. It works with any app that uses the system beep.

Whilst many people text message each other, rather than type, iMessage is a great tool for those who find it easier to communicate through text rather than talking.

3. Physical and Motor Skills Disabilities

Accessibility Keyboard
Accessibility Keyboard

The keyboard has been the primary input device for computer for decades and the Mac is no different. But a keyboard is not suitable to everyone, though. Those with physical disabilities or motor skills problems may find it difficult without some changes.

Since macOS High Sierra, an Accessibility Keyboard is a customisable on-screen keyboard that helps mobility impaired users to undertake more advanced typing and navigation. It also supports head-tracking software meaning that macOS can be used without ever needing to click the mouse.

Again, Apple’s digital assistant, Siri, helps with requests to search the Internet, locate documents, create reminders and send messages or emails. 

Dictation commands, combined with Automator, is a powerful tool for automating processes for those who find it easier to talk to a Mac.

Apple has lots of support materials on its website
Apple has lots of support materials on its website

Switch Control, for people with extensive motor skills challenges, is a powerful assistive technology to navigate on screen keyboard, menus and the Dock.

A switch, joystick or a tap on the keyboard or trackpad can act as an adaptive device. This control is taken a step further with Platform Switching that lets the Mac user operate any other device synced with their iCloud account such as an iPad or iPhone.

Other features, such as Sticky Keys, Slow Keys and Mouse Keys, are built in to macOS to help those with dexterity issues. The pressing of keys can be displayed and accompanied by a sound effect for confirmation. 

Or the sensitivity of the keyboard can be adjusted to introduce a delay between the key being pressed and being entered with the choice of a sound for confirmation.

The keys of a numeric keypad can be used to control the cursor as a replacement to the mouse or trackpad for those who have difficulty using such devices. This can be used to navigate the menu, app windows and the Dock.

4. Learning and Literacy Disabilities

Some people learn better when they can hear what they’re reading or writing. Text to Speech can be used to read books or websites. Highlight a section of text and have it read in one of 70 voices spanning 42 different languages.

Pressing the F5 key helps vocabulary with word completion
Pressing the F5 key helps vocabulary with word completion.

Pressing the F5 key helps vocabulary with word completion. macOS suggests words for the user to select.

For people with learning disabilities or cognitive issues, Simple Finder reduces the Dock to three folders and the apps that can be used can be limited. Folders and files are displayed as neatly arranged icons in a single window to help simplify the user interface.

Other apps, that many of us take for granted, such as FaceTime helps people who communicate using sign language. iMessage used in conjunction with Text to Speech lets you hear the words read aloud.

How to Access Accessibility Options

Accessibility Options
Accessibility Options

The Assistive Technologies, described above, are a part of every Mac with macOS High Sierra. Many of them are included in earlier versions of macOS and OS X.

These technologies can be accessed quickly and easily via the Accessibility Options window. To access this varies depending upon which Mac you’re using:

  • From an external keyboard (Mac mini and iMac) press the Option-Command-F5 keys
  • On a built-in keyboard (MacBook) press the Fn-Option-Command-F5 keys
  • On a MacBook with Touch ID, triple-press Touch ID

To close the window, click Done or click anywhere outside of the window.

Useful Links

Accessibility Accessories
Accessibility Accessories

Conclusion

In this tutorial, I’ve shown you some of the Assistive Technology software that is built-in to macOS and OS X that is designed to make the use of computers, by people with disabilities, easier.

Accessibility is a core value at Apple, where engineers are specifically trained how to implement accessibility features across all products. Not only are accessibility features built-in at no extra cost, these assistive technologies are available to all Mac users.