Even though Apple’s VoiceOver has been a part of the OS X operating system since 2005 and iOS since 2009, initially it wasn’t that effective. Apple has improved VoiceOver drastically since then, leading Mark A. Riboccino (current president of the National Federation of the Blind) to state in a blog post that “Apple has done more for accessibility than any other company to date.”
Apple’s dedication to accessibility also earned the company a 2015 Helen Keller Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). This award is given to individuals and corporations who change perceptions about what it means to have a visual disability through either inspirational achievement or groundbreaking innovation.
Groundbreaking innovation? That sounds a lot like Apple.
What is VoiceOver?
VoiceOver is Apple’s native screen reader software, which allows those with low vision to use all of Apple’s products (including OS X computers, iPhones, iPads, the Apple Watch, and Apple TV) through auditory description of items on the screen.
These items may include visible information (such as text and links), invisible information (such as HTML descriptions of images) and additional information requires to navigate the screen (like the number of menu options available to choose from).
Descriptions are read by Alex, known as “the voice of Mac.” Alex is more than a simple text-to-speech generator – a lot of effort has gone into ensuring that he speaks as naturally as possible, by having the software analyze full paragraphs at a time (improving word pronunciation accuracy and nuanced intonation), and having Alex follow a natural breathing pattern by pausing between long sentences. Currently, Alex can communicate in over thirty languages.
What Sets Apple’s Approach to Accessibility Apart?
“The right to live in the world has to include the right to live in the digital world.”
– Dr. Marc Maurer (Past President, AFB)
There is no reason why individuals with any form of disability should be unable to access technology, and the tech world is gradually becoming accustomed to this concept when designing their products. Indeed, accessible technology can be a game changer for many individuals living with disabilities, as it can eliminate many of the barriers to participation that they may face.
While there are also accessibility apps available for Android and other operating systems, there are several key features that help to set Apple’s native accessibility apart from other tech giants.
Firstly, all of Apple’s accessibility software is available on all of their devices for free. There is no need for users to download additional programs, pay extra fees, or access specific devices in order to use these accessibility features.
Secondly, Apple’s VoiceOver is just one component out of their overall accessibility strategy. Both the Mac OS X and iOS devices offer an incredible number of accessibility features for individuals who have trouble with hearing, seeing, reading, motor skills, and more.
Apple also works to ensure that external accessibility devices and third-party software have access to their native accessibility options. For example, Macs have pre-installed software for over 50 refreshable Braille displays, so that they can be used right out of the box. Furthermore, Braille display mirroring can be used to connect up to 32 Braille displays at once for meetings or presentations.
How Do You Use VoiceOver?
VoiceOver is incredibly easy to access:
- On Mac OS X: Press Command + F5 (no need to hold fn)
- On iOS: Press the Home Button three times Quickly (or visit: Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver)
- On Apple Watch: visit Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver > On
VoiceOver is controlled using gestures and keyboard combinations, and offers some really cool features, including the ability to handwrite letters on your phone or tablet’s screen instead of using the on-screen keyboard, giving a verbal description of what your camera is seeing (e.g. “two faces”), and giving a verbal explanation of your location on Maps.
If you are interested in learning more about using VoiceOver:
- Webaim.org is a great resource for learning specific gestures and controls used to navigate VoiceOver.
- AppleVis is a community of Apple Users who are blind or low-vision that features blog posts, guides, reviews, podcasts, how-tos, and a forum revolving around the use of Apple’s technologies in daily life.
- YouTube has some great tutorials that demonstrate how effectively VoiceOver can be, as you can see below.
Does VoiceOver Have Any Problems?
Of course, VoiceOver is still far from a perfect solution for those with low vision.
While VoiceOver works incredibly well with Apple’s native apps (including Safari, Mail, and iMessages), many third-party apps remain inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. While AFB has lauded Apple’s efforts towards accessibility, they have also continued to place pressure on Apple in an effort to increase the number of accessible apps available in the App Store.
Additionally, much like any software, there are still accessibility bugs present in VoiceOver. While some of these bugs are software based, others have to do with oversights in the design process. AppleVis keeps a list of all currently active and patched bugs on their website.
Accessibility features by their very nature cannot be one-size-fits-all, and Apple recognizes that – several pages in their Accessibility overview online ask users to submit any oversights or bugs to firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 877-204-3930.
What Apps Currently Work with VoiceOver?
Nearly all of Apple’s native apps work almost seamlessly with VoiceOver. In addition, you should be able to access most of your computer’s features while using VoiceOver because of the way that the computer software functions – it’s the apps on iOS that tend to be the most inaccessible.
Apple does highlight other apps that have been programmed to work with VoiceOver on a distinct page in the iTunes Store. With that being said, there are several more apps designed for VoiceOver that are not highlighted on this page – Paths to Literacy has a list of several VoiceOver enabled apps including alarm clocks, calculators, games, and a GPS app.
In addition, Apple’s website highlights third-party apps designed for accessibility that can enhance technology use for individuals with many different kinds of disability. Again, there are more iOS accessibility apps available than are listed on this website – this area of technology is developing quickly and there are many incredible innovations that can be discovered with a little research!
Why is Apple Obsessed With Accessibility?
It’s hard to separate innovation from profit, but accessibility is one area where Apple has been vocal about their overall desire to do the right thing regardless of monetary gain, and Apple’s leaders have been quite vocal about this.
“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI [return on investment] . . . [we do] a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive. We want to leave the world better than we found it.”
– Tim Cook, Apple CEO
So far, it really looks like Apple is living up to their reputation of making their products accessible, and improving on this technology going forward. From creating one of the first effective touch-screen interfaces for those with vision loss, to providing a resource centre for those interested in modifying their app’s design, and continuing to innovate new solutions to the barriers users with disability face when accessing technology.
Do you use any of Apple’s accessibility features? I’d love to hear about your experience, and know what improvements you would make to the software that’s currently available!