How to Make the Most of Mac’s Accessibility Features


You might not know it or need it, but your Mac comes with a host of accessibility features that help make your computer more accessible if you have a disability. Apple is well known for bringing best-in-class assistive technology to all of its platforms – and the nearly four-decade-old Mac is no exception. In fact, Apple has a Knowledge Base article on macOS accessibility features.

When you explore the Accessibility pane in System Preferences, you’ll notice that Apple has organized the system’s accessibility features into various development areas: Vision, Hearing, Engine, and General. There’s also an Overview tab where Apple concisely summarizes what accessibility does for you. “Accessibility features tailor your Mac to your individual needs,” the copy reads. “Your Mac can be customized to support your vision, hearing, fine motor, learning and literacy needs.” Accessibility features are disabled by default, but you can visit System Preferences to enable anything you need or want. Most are accessible system-wide via a hotkey.

Let’s take a look at each category and its features.

Vision

The Mac’s Vision options.
Screenshot: Steven Aquino

Under the Vision category, Apple lists VoiceOver, Zoom, Display, Spoken Content, and Descriptions.

Voice off, the award-winning screen reader, is arguably Apple’s canonical accessibility feature: it’s the one most users (and app developers) are most familiar with. As you’d expect from a screen reader, VoiceOver lets people who are blind or visually impaired navigate their computer through voice prompts. As you move around the Dock, for example, VoiceOver will say “Button, Mail” when your pointer hovers over the mail icon. VoiceOver is also deeply customizable; users can train it to recognize certain words, and the speed of voice and conversation can be changed at will.

Zoom is quite simple: turn it on and the interface is maximized. As with VoiceOver, Zoom can be customized to a considerable degree — you can choose to scroll with a modifier key (such as the control or option keys); you can zoom to full screen, via split-screen or picture-in-picture; and more.

A notable feature of the Zoom section is Hover over text. After enabling it, users can hold down the command (⌘) while the mouse hovers over something (hence the name) to display a large text view of the item. This is particularly useful for reading small print in System Preferences, for example. And yes, Hover Text is easily customizable – you can change the text box font type and colors to suit your visual needs.

Large text version of smaller text on the page

Hovering over text lets you view a large text version of an item.
Screenshot: Barbara Krasnoff

The other three features of Vision are closely related. Display allows a host of options for more accessible ways of viewing the screen, such as increasing contrast and reducing transparency. Spoken content allows you to change the sound and rate of the system voice; you also have the option to enable or disable the ability to speak announcements such as notifications, items under the pointer, etc. Lately, Descriptions allows you to enable audio descriptions for what Apple describes as “visual content in media”.

Hearing

Mac audition options.

Mac audition options.
Screenshot: Steven Aquino

There are three features in this category: Audio, RTT and Subtitles.

The audio The section is quite sparse, only giving the option of a screen flash when an alert arrives. Conceptually, it serves the same purpose as the flashing phone we had in our house when I was growing up. My parents were both completely deaf, so every time the phone rang, a lamp in the living room flashed (in addition to the usual ringing that I could hear) alerting them that the phone was ringing.

RTT, or real-time text, is a mode for calling deaf and hard of hearing people who use a TDD device. TDDs have a unique sound, so it was easy to tell when another TDD user was calling my parents; I would simply place the phone receiver on the TDD and tell my parents the call was for them. (Note: older Macs may not include RTT functionality.)

To finish, Legends allow users to customize the appearance of system-wide subtitles to suit their tastes.

Engine

Mac engine options.

Mac engine options.
Screenshot: Steven Aquino

The Engine category includes voice control, keyboard, pointer control, and switch control.

Voice command, introduced with much fanfare in macOS Catalina at WWDC 2019, lets you control your entire Mac with just your voice, freeing up those who can’t use traditional input methods like mouse and keyboard. You can choose to enable or disable specific verbal commands and even add specific vocabulary that you prefer to use.

Keyboard lists a multitude of options for configuring keyboard behavior. For instance, sticky keys (found in the Material tab) is useful for those who cannot hold down modifier keys to perform keyboard shortcuts. Pointer control is analogous to the keyboard in that it allows you to customize the behavior of the pointer; his Alternative control methods The tab helps you activate several useful options. For instance, Enable Alternate Pointer Actions lets you control your pointer with a separate switch or facial expression, while Activate main pointer allows you to use head movement. Control switch, like Voice Control, allows hands-free operation of one’s computer using external buttons called switches. Apple sells a variety of Mac-compatible switches on its website.

General

General Mac accessibility features.

General Mac accessibility features.
Screenshot: Steven Aquino

General consists of two features: Siri and the Accessibility Shortcut.

Below SiriApple is giving users the option to enable Type to Siri, which allows users — who are deaf or have a speech delay, for example — to interact with Siri in a Messages-style interface.

Shortcut Is simple. Using a keyboard shortcut (Option-Command-F5), you get a context menu that allows you to invoke the accessibility feature of your choice. It is also possible to define several shortcuts.

Accessibility Shortcuts Menu

Using a keyboard shortcut, you can get a context menu of all available accessibility features.
Screenshot: Barbara Krasnoff

One important thing to note about all macOS accessibility features is their place in the larger Apple ecosystem. Most of them are available on one (or more) of Apple’s other platforms like iOS, iPadOS and tvOS. This is notable from an accessibility perspective because of its consistency.

For those with certain cognitive conditions who move between devices, the linearity of accessibility features across platforms means a more comfortable and consistent experience. A person will know what to expect and how to use certain things, which goes a long way in shaping a positive user experience when switching between devices regularly.


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