Adventures In Accessibility #1: Using VoiceOver on the Mac

by Kwasi Mensah

December 7th, 2010

Start of the Journey

As part of Ananse Productions mission statement, I’ve been learning as much as I can about accessibility. However, you can only learn so much without diving in. So as a form of method programming/design I’m forcing myself to start using VoiceOver, Mac OS X’s built in screen reader, on a daily basis.

For full disclosure I’m fully sighted (plus or minus the occasional squinting), I only have the screen reader on for the first part of the day when I’m doing administrative stuff/PR/article reading. I’m also using the screen reader with my monitor still on. I don’t have the lifetime experience of not using my eyes and as much as I want to learn I still need to get work done.

I took the plunge and turned on VoiceOver ( Apple -> System Preferences -> Universal Access or “fn – command – f5” ). After an hour of basic tutorials, I thought it was time to check out Kotaku. So I “control – option – d” to the dock, navigated to Firefox and was ready to roll… except I was stuck in the titlebar.

Why Firefox, Why?

I figured I was just being a VoiceOver noob so I navigated through the Finder, opened Safari and Googled about Firefox and VoiceOver. I find my way to the page of Aaron Leventhal, the Firefox Accessibility Lead and realize that the VoiceOver brokeness is no accident. It comes down to Apple being unresponsive to the team’s emails. That post is actually a very interesting read as Aaron deeply discusses the reasons why Apple would be unresponsive. So I’m stuck with Safari.

I get back to my original task and clumsily navigate back to the address bar and hit enter. The pretty simple task of going to the address bar is taking more time than I like so I open the menu bar to learn some shortcuts. “apple – l” will take me to the address bar but there’s no shortcut for searching so I have to remember to “apple – l” and then move twice to the right. I have a feeling learning general keyboard shortcuts and not just VoiceOver keyboard shortcuts is going to become very important. I type in and land on the popular gaming news site.

When Formatting Attacks

This is where the fun starts. If I was truly not sighted, I’d have no idea how to parse the information VoiceOver was reading off to me. Kotaku seems to have a lot of meta-data in its site (hash tags, etc) which caused the same words to read over and over again. Using the web rotor and looking for links was marginally better than accessing the elements one at time. There’s so much meta-data that its hard to parse what the current articles are let alone their descriptions.

I ended up reading the post “The First Moron To Break His TV With Kinect” . Its becoming clear that the web rotor (“control – option – u”) is going to invaluable. After finding the header with the same name as the article (which inconveniently is at the bottom of the header list) I’m able to actually start reading through the it. I try to follow the link to Phil Villareal’s site. I know I can hit “control – option – space” to open it but I generally like to open links in separate tabs and read through them when I’m done with the main article. I know I can do this with “apple – click” but there must be a way for me to do it with just keys, right?

Return of the Mouse

Wrong. In fact there’s no way to bring up contextual menus without using the mouse. Puzzled by this I Googled about it. It turns out VoiceOver has commands for moving the mouse to where VoiceOver was reading from (it’s also a setting in the Voiceover Utiliy). There is no place in the VoiceOver tutorial that brings this up. In fact, there are several useful VoiceOver commands (like “control – option – a” to automatically keep reading and “control” to pause reading) which are not brought up at all. Furthermore, the pdf that has an in-depth chart of VoiceOver commands is unintelligible with VoiceOver. To be fair Apple says this chart is for sighted and partially sighted users but I don’t see any other access to this information other than using “control – option – k” and pressing every combination of keys you can think of.


I have to caveat this entire post with the fact the VoiceOver is the first and only screen reader I’ve ever tried. The first day alone has given me a wealth of information and inspiration on things to do with my project.

I don’t mean to pick on Apple. I own a Mac and I’m making an iPhone game so it was the natural place for me to start. And considering that JAWS  the most popular  screen reader is $895, you have to give them props for doing this for free. To be fair, Microsoft does ship with Microsoft Narrator and there a several open source screen readers like NVDA and Orca.


  1. Bhargav
    Posted December 7, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Neat article! Interesting that Apple is slow to respond, since I’m assuming they have a team supporting this.

  2. kaori
    Posted December 14, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Great read! I had no idea Windows 7 shipped with a low-vision assistance program. If the Windows Accessibility page is to be believed, 1 in 4 adult PC users “has a vision difficulty.” I wonder if color-blindness is included?

  3. Posted December 20, 2010 at 10:23 am

    If “vision difficulty” is supposed to be similar to legal blindness than I don’t think so. I don’t think screen readers/magnifiers help those that can make colors out. But having pages that let you change their style (like this one!) help the color blind.

  4. MEBA
    Posted January 26, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Verry imformative. “GOOD DIVE”. You should be proud of yourself. Congratulations.

One Trackback

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Fisher. David Fisher said: Is your page accessible to the blind? No really, have you tried it only with a screenreader yourself? […]

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