Braille Monitor                                                    December 2009

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Revisiting the Mac Using OS X and VoiceOver

by Wesley Majerus

Wesley Majerus uses a Mac.From the Editor: Last June the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind access technology team reviewed the operating system for the Mac using VoiceOver. Readers with experience using the Mac objected to some of the criticisms leveled at VoiceOver. The primary author, Wes Majerus, has looked again at the Mac and VoiceOver and has more to say on the subject. This is what he says:


A few months have passed since the publication of our original article reviewing the Macintosh computer with OS X and VoiceOver (VO). That article outlined the use of VoiceOver, Apple's built-in screen reader for the Mac OSX operating system. VoiceOver was developed by Apple and is integrated into the Mac operating system, which means that it has the potential to be modified whenever Apple updates its operating system. VoiceOver will work on any Macintosh running OS X Tiger or later by pressing CMD+F5 to toggle it on or off. [The Command key on the Mac is located where the Alt key is found on a Windows keyboard.] Once you have learned how to use VoiceOver, you can use this shortcut on any Mac to use the VoiceOver screen reader. We would like to take this opportunity to correct several errors and assumptions in that first article. We would also like to highlight some notable aspects of the Mac that we failed to include in that first piece. It is important to note that, though the foundation of that first article was established during one intensive week of work, research and significant Mac use occurred over a much longer period, from the time of the initial evaluation until the article's publication. Unfortunately, because of uncertainty about where to go for help and the lack of clear guidance from Apple about how to proceed, other than their VoiceOver Getting Started manual, our research was not as complete as it might have been. In addition, we believe that many of the hurdles we encountered could be faced by anyone looking at a Mac computer coming from a Windows background. We will discuss this throughout the article as well as outline resources for new Macintosh users or those interested in how the Mac functions. We will also make some suggestions for transitioning to a Mac if you choose.

General Concepts

Two areas of Mac navigation that caused the most trouble and were pointed out in the first article were the use of the Tab key and item interaction. Since the publication of the first article, two Mac users have been working with me on learning the Macintosh operating system. With their advice and experience, I have made several observations about these two concepts. I commented that I found it difficult to determine when I could tab through an application and when I should use VO keys. As I have gotten faster with the VO keys and have become accustomed to the way dialogs are laid out, I have begun using the VO keys primarily, rather than tabbing. On occasion, if I am certain that the Tab key will give me the results I am looking for, most often inside save-as dialog boxes, I tab to other controls. An area in which tabbing is necessary is after pressing CMD+E to edit a calendar appointment. You must press Tab one time after pressing CMD+E to gain access to other fields in the calendar. Once you have done this, the rest of the fields can be accessed with VoiceOver keys.

At times interaction is still a foreign concept to me as a Windows user. However, I am now beginning to understand the way it works and the benefits it provides a screen-access software user. One rule of thumb to follow when looking at interaction is that, if an item contains more than one sub-item, you will most likely need to interact with it; however, it is not always clear when to interact with specific elements such as those contained in tables. Think of your computer screen as a series of containers or boxes. Across the top you might have a menu bar and below it a tool bar. Further below these may be a scroll area for writing text, along with other buttons or controls. The interaction process is a means by which your attention can be narrowly focused to any one of these containers. I can look at the buttons inside the toolbar and be restricted to that area on the screen. If I am editing text in the scroll area, interaction keeps my focus within this area. I would find a couple of changes to interaction helpful. I would like to see a "What am I interacting with now?" key that would let me see the items with which I am interacting without changing anything. Second, a "Stop interacting with all" key would be helpful. If you are in a complex application, it is conceivable that you can be interacting with a table, a scroll area, and some individual text (three levels deep). It would be a great enhancement to have one keystroke that, no matter how deeply you were interacting, would stop your interacting with everything.

Applications and Correction of Errors

Let us turn attention to some of the applications and features that were reviewed earlier. I would like to correct what was said about spell checking with TextEdit in the previous article. When you use the "Check Document Now" option, which is activated with CMD+:, a dialog box appears allowing you to check the document for spelling and grammar errors. As the check progresses, the VoiceOver keys allow you to work with the misspelled word as well as the suggestions table. When the check is complete, the Mac makes a bonk sound, which is its default audio output. At this point the dialog box is still present but showing no misspelled word or suggestions. Some of the buttons, like Ignore and Learn are shown as dimmed. You dismiss this dialog with CMD+w. Nothing but the bonk sound indicates that the check is complete. If for some reason you try this check on a document that has no errors, you will see only this empty spell-checking dialog box and hear a small click. While this may be confusing to some, it is definitely usable.

Next I turn to iCal, the calendar application. With the help of an online tutorial and advice from Mac users, I have been able to remedy some of the problems I reported with the application. One of the annoyances I touched on in June was the constant repetition of "December 31, 2000" when moving through the application. This was caused by a portion of iCal called the "Mini Months" view. As you use VO keys to move around the application, you will notice a button called "Hide Mini Months,” if your Mac is set up as it was when it was purchased. Clicking this button hides the Mini Months area, and VoiceOver will stop announcing this date. When setting up the calendar, day and week views may be preferable to some since they do not cover much time.

Though it is possible to add and edit events in the calendar with iCal, it is a different process from the one some may be accustomed to. Clicking CMD+N opens a new event. The only thing that is editable by default is the title. Pressing CMD+E allows you to edit the entire appointment. This lets you change location, alarm settings, date, time, and duration. It is also possible to set recurrences for appointments that happen multiple times. Once you press CMD+E, it is necessary to press Tab one time to get to other fields with the VoiceOver keys and the Tab key itself. It should also be noted that the "Calendar Area Canvas" behaves differently from the way one might expect. You do not actually see dates with VoiceOver. If events are visible in the view you have set, for example, events during the current week in a week view, you can VO left and right through them after interacting with the Calendar Area Canvas. If no events exist for the parameters you have set, you do not see anything inside the canvas.

It is important to visit tables once again in this discussion. I have found that interaction in tables can provide easy access to information as well as cut down on verbiage as you move through that information. One example is within the Mail application. Once the message table appears, you can interact with it. By moving to the right with VO+Right Arrow, you will move across the columns for a particular message. If, for example, you were looking for a message from a specific person, you could VO+Right Arrow to the name column. Now use VO+Down Arrow to move down the column. Your focus will be restricted to this column until you move left or right or stop interacting with the table. The message you have chosen to read will also now be available in the scroll area. It is also important to note that this table can be rearranged, and certain columns such as the presence of an attachment on a message can be added to the Mail table. You can also use the table interaction and movement commands just discussed in other areas of Leopard, such as in the Applications list. By moving directly to the name column, you can quickly move down through the table to the application you desire using these methods. You can still arrow through this list, but interacting with the table and moving down through the column cuts down on the announcement of all other attributes of a specific application.

Using Braille and Other Features

Braille support is an important feature that was not mentioned in the previous article. The Mac's Braille functionality is unique because it is plug and play. This means that, if a display is supported by VoiceOver on the Macintosh, simply plugging it into a USB port on your computer causes Braille to appear after a small sound denoting recognition of the display. No additional drivers or software must be installed. For some displays a small update must be made to Leopard. See the Apple Website for details. Once Braille is operational, a section of the VoiceOver Control Panel allows Braille options to be configured and can even show in simulated Braille or plain text what is being sent to the Braille display. This can be further expanded by allowing users to assign commands to keys on their displays through the Braille Commander. This process is fairly straightforward. After pressing the Add button, the user presses the key or key combination he or she wants to assign. This causes VoiceOver to beep four times followed by a fifth sound, which signifies that the key combination is ready for use. By choosing the pop-up button in the table row for this new key, the user can choose from a list of commands that can be tied to that key. If a conflict exists, a notification is provided.

If you have the opportunity to experience Braille on the Mac and have previously used a Braille display, you might notice something different about the Braille cursor being used. At first glance this cursor might look a bit different and much wider than cursors commonly displayed on Windows screen readers, but it can help to illustrate one of the main differences in the Mac's editing strategy. The Braille Cursor is made up of dot 7 of one Braille cell and dot 8 of the preceding cell. This, to me, illustrates the fact that the cursor is "between" characters when editing. When you type text into a program like Text Edit, using Braille and this cursor depiction help one to understand how the Mac's cursor moves and where insertion and deletion will take place from the current cursor position.

In the event that you do not have Braille, it is important to understand that the Mac cursor does not appear below a letter but between letters. If you write the word apple on a line in TextEdit and move to the end of the document, the cursor is to the right of the "e." When you press Left Arrow, you hear "e" because the cursor is now between "l" and "e." Pressing Right Arrow again says "e" because the cursor has jumped back over the "e" and is now at the end of the document. If you moved left, you would hear "e," "l," "p," "p," and finally "a." The cursor is now at the left of the letter "a." Pressing Right Arrow at this point would report "a" again, because the cursor, which is to the left of "a," is moving back to the right of “a” and will be to the right of whichever letter is voiced if you continue to arrow right. This is an important concept to understand for accurate use of editing text on the Mac and is, in my opinion, illustrated quite well by seeing and working with it in Braille.

Another useful feature that was not mentioned is the Num Pad Commander. Using the Num Pad Commander, one can assign VoiceOver keystrokes to keys on the numeric keypad that is found on most desktop Apple keyboards. In addition to stand-alone keys on the keypad, you can use the modifiers CMD, Shift, Option, and Control, as well as the zero key on the Num Pad. CMD+Option (VO) Left and Right Arrows move the VoiceOver cursor left and right. VO+Space selects an element within the VoiceOver cursor. One could assign these keystrokes to the numeric keypad with the Num Pad Commander. One is limited to commands that appear in the assignments list, but this is still a powerful feature that can eliminate the need to hold down a lot of keys and can provide quick access to features that are used frequently.

Resources for Learning the Mac

The NFB access technology team cannot be responsible for the content of the Websites mentioned in this section. Also we cannot guarantee the availability of the podcast files or Websites mentioned. This content was available and accessible at the time this article was written.

Many resources have helped to clarify my confusion about the Macintosh in my early work with this system. I would like to thank Alan Holst and Jason Fayre, two Mac users who agreed to show me how the aspects of the Mac OS that I reported on could be used. Alan’s experience and knowledge were beneficial to me in gaining a more thorough understanding of VoiceOver and the Mac OS. In addition, I used several Websites brought to my attention. For an understanding of the Mac in general, one can use a book like Bob LeVitus's Mac OS X for Dummies. This is written by renowned Mac expert Bob LeVitus, whose Website is <>. As of this writing Mac OS X for Dummies is available from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. Books and Websites like those published by Bob LeVitus do not describe VoiceOver in great detail. What they do provide, which some might find helpful, is an understanding of the components of a Mac in general as well as descriptions of the features of the operating system.

Several accessibility-related sites are also available. <> includes a selection of podcasts, forums, guides, and tutorials that can assist with using various VoiceOver features and Macintosh applications. BlindCoolTech, the popular blindness-related podcast also includes some podcasts about the Mac. One series, hosted by Mike Arrigo, demonstrates many basic aspects of using the Mac as well as more advanced features like running Windows on a Mac or booting from the Mac OS X DVD. Mike Arrigo also presents recommendations for purchasing a Mac and outlines settings that can be changed to make the Mac work best with VoiceOver. The Blind World Blog and Podcast, found at <>, also presents iPhone- and Mac-related content. Similar content can also be found at <>. Whether you have a new Mac or are just interested in what the Mac can do, books and Websites like these can be beneficial to you.

You might also check out two listservs: Mac Visionaries and Mac Voiceover. These lists are available to answer questions about the Mac and VoiceOver from new users or perspective switchers. We wish that Apple's support team had a greater knowledge of VoiceOver and ways to acquaint blind users with it. Failing this, we believe that it would be beneficial for Apple to have a dedicated support specialist on staff who knows how to use VoiceOver and can assist new users and answer questions.

If one looks at Apple's sales and support sites, various documents and videos exist explaining the anatomy of a Mac and outlining use of specific Mac concepts and features. This helps people who may not get what they need from the built-in help system or those who have never seen a Mac before to understand how it might be used. We believe that blind Mac users and those interested in the Macintosh platform should be given much of this material about VoiceOver from Apple. Audio and video demos, printed and audio training curricula and examples, and hands-on tutorials and exercises that go beyond a simple getting-started tutorial would be beneficial. While we understand that the technical support that a manufacturer provides is not and should not be the only source for users to get feedback, it is often their first attempt at doing so. Some users may become discouraged or not know where to turn if they cannot get the assistance they seek from the vendor of the access technology that they have purchased. In this case Apple is that vendor.

An important thing to remember when considering whether you want to try a Mac is that it is probably not for everyone. If you are adventurous and are willing to forget all you know about screen-reading and former operating systems while trying the Mac, then the Mac may be for you. It is important to understand that, because of the different paradigm under which VoiceOver operates, concepts for using the screen-access software do not readily translate into those that you may be familiar with. The most crucial of these concepts and the one that seems to trip up most computer users is interaction, discussed earlier. Understanding and putting into practice these concepts may take most users some time. If you are willing to put in the time, the Mac can be a useful tool. Another fact worth consideration is that VoiceOver is built into the operating system. When budgeting for a computing purchase, you will not need to factor in the cost of VoiceOver or any SMA purchases on the Mac. Though VoiceOver works fairly well with most applications shipped on the Macintosh, access to third-party apps can be uncertain.

VoiceOver in Snow Leopard

As we go to press with this article, Apple has just released a new operating system for the Macintosh. The OS, version 10.6 Snow Leopard, is the third OS upgrade to include VoiceOver. In the following paragraphs I present a few of the features that are immediately noticeable when trying the new OS. It is far from being a complete review of the new operating system.

Snow Leopard does include major improvements for users of VoiceOver. Cosmetically, previous Mac users will notice that the sound effects have changed. If you are an iPhone 3GS user, you will notice that they are the same sounds used on your iPhone. In my opinion these sound effects convey what is happening better and are of the right volume and variety to complement the speech. Alex, Apple's human-like voice, also sounds a bit different and is able to speak much faster in Snow Leopard.

A few new keyboard shortcuts have been added to VoiceOver. While you could lock the VO keys (CTRL and Option) in previous Leopard versions, a new mode has been introduced that allows you to complete some basic VO navigation/interaction with just your arrow keys. By pressing Left and Right Arrow together, you invoke Quick Nav mode. Now you can move left and right with just the Left and Right Arrow keys. If an item you want to perform an action on is under the VO cursor, just press the Up and Down Arrow keys together. The Down and Right Arrow keys together interact with an item, and the Down and Left Arrow keys stop interaction on an item. Pressing the Up Arrow with either the Left or Right Arrows toggles through a rota of word, character, or default navigation. The Up and Down Arrows move forward or backward by that unit. You can toggle the mode off with Left and Right Arrows together. Inside the VoiceOver control panel you can now choose to interact automatically with items as you tab through a dialog. This is a new feature that is not always consistent.

I think one would be best served by learning the VO concepts first and then using this option when one is familiar with the way the operating system works. Two areas where this new feature does not reliably perform are the "setup assistant" and date/time controls. In the case of date/time controls VoiceOver does not speak anything as you tab across various aspects of the date or time, for example, the month, date, year, hour, minute, and AM/PM settings. If you want a more Windows-like feel to VoiceOver, you can now choose to have it speak only what is to the right of the VoiceOver cursor when editing. This is configurable within the VO control panel.

Snow Leopard now has the option to announce hints about areas of controls. These hints are configurable and occur when one pauses on a control or in a certain area. This capability may alleviate some of the confusion about interaction.

Braille has also been vastly improved in Snow Leopard. If you wish to do so, you can now connect up to thirty-two refreshable Braille displays to the Mac by USB, and the contents on these displays will be mirrored. This might be useful in a classroom setting or for deaf-blind users. If you have a Braille display that contains Bluetooth support, you can now use the display in Bluetooth mode with VoiceOver. When we attempted to mirror USB and Bluetooth displays simultaneously, we could not get it to work properly. However, connecting one display by Bluetooth and using it with VoiceOver did work successfully.

A few words should be said about updating, maintenance, and other tasks on the Macintosh. These tasks apply regardless of which VoiceOver-equipped Mac OS you are using. The Macintosh has a few keys that can be held down at power-on to access different startup options. This is different from Windows, where you must access a menu to change boot order and the startup drive. By holding down C as you power up the Mac, you can boot from the DVD drive. Using your Mac system DVD causes a runtime version of the operating system to appear. Once this is loaded, you can press the VoiceOver shortcut and get speech and, if a display is connected, Braille. This is important because from this point on you can install the Mac OS, prepare a disk for its installation using Disk Utility, or fix disk problems that can be causing an installed OS not to run properly. In addition, you can prepare an external hard disk and install the Mac OS onto it. This allows you to use a dual-boot system successfully. You can hold down Option as you power up and then arrow left or right to the desired OS, or you can change the startup disk within System Preferences, which is also accessible. The menu that appears after you hold Option at power-on does not speak, but it is consistent in that you can arrow left or right to get to the OS you want to boot into.

In closing we apologize for any confusion the previous article may have caused. We would especially like to apologize to those who may have been considering the purchase of a Macintosh computer and who were discouraged by what we previously wrote. In addition, we would like to thank those who have directly and indirectly assisted us in correcting the errors in that article and assisted us in learning more about the Macintosh. You can contact us at (410) 659-9314, option 5, if you have further questions about the Apple Macintosh or about any other access technology.

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