A Mac OS X Guide To Accessibility Features

Matt Smith 10-06-2014

Most of us take the way we use a computer daily for granted. A keyboard, mouse and monitor seems necessary, even natural. Yet many people must rely on other means of interacting with a computer. Fortunately, Mac OS X has a number of accessibility features built-in which can accommodate the needs of most users. Here’s what they are, and what they do.


Finding Access

Before you can worry about accessibility features 7 Steps to Make Computers Accessible for the Elderly Read More you have to find them. Fortunately, that’s a cinch. Just open the Apple menu in the upper left and then click System Preferences. You’ll find the Accessibility icon in the fourth row down.

A Mac OS X Guide To Accessibility Features Screen Shot 2014 05 28 at 2

You can also open an Accessibility menu by pressing the Function (Fn), Option, Command and F5 keys simultaneously. Or, if you’d like to use specific features via the keyboard, you can refer to Apple’s handy list of Accessibility shortcuts.


The first category of features is referred to as Seeing, and includes display, zoom and voiceover tools. These are useful for people who have a vision disability.

Display is used to invert colors, convert to grayscale, enhance contrast 7 Steps to Make Computers Accessible for the Elderly Read More and change cursor size, all of which are great for individuals with partial sight. Brightness and resolution are adjusted in a separate menu, which is linked from the Display menu.


A Mac OS X Guide To Accessibility Features Screen Shot 2014 05 28 at 2

Zoom is designed for people with poor eyesight and does exactly what it says. This is where you turn on Zoom keyboard shortcuts, and this is also where you can adjust how far you want OS X to zoom when you activate the feature.

VoiceOver is an advanced audio control system for people without sight. The featureset of VoiceOver is extremely advanced and includes unique touch controls, support for braille displays, and voice support for thirty languages. This feature is complex enough that Apple has developed a lengthy guide for it alone, but it’s incredible for anyone who has difficulty using a computer because of their vision. Navigator, which performs a similar function in Microsoft Windows, simply can’t compete.


The audio options under Hearing are basic. You can turn on screen flash, which flashes the screen when a system alert appears, and you can force stereo sound to come across as mono.


You’ll also find the captions preferences, which again are fairly limited; you can’t do a lot except switch between three default sizes and force closed captions when possible. Still, that’s better than nothing.


In the Interacting category you’ll find features that change how OS X inputs work. The section starts with the keyboard, where you can activate sticky keys or slow keys. Sticky keys let you enable modifier keys (like command) without holding them down the entire time you would like them active. Slow keys simply delays the response of a key, which in turn requires more purposeful use. You can also enable a clicky audio indicator that lets you know when a key is activated.

Mouse & Trackpad is where you’ll find Mouse Keys, a feature that allows mouse navigation via the keypad. This is also, somewhat confusingly where you’ll find features that are not necessarily always related to accessibility, like cursor speed and double-click speed.

A Mac OS X Guide To Accessibility Features Screen Shot 2014 05 28 at 2


Under Switch Control you’ll find a tool that lets you navigate most system functions using a single “Switch” like the spacebar. When enabled, a menu appears. Pressing the assigned switch starts navigation through the menu, which occurs automatically. When the desired command is highlighted the switch is pressed again. In this way most system functions can be controlled with a single key or button.

The mouse can be used in this fashion, too; selecting the switch causes a vertical line to scroll across the screen. When it’s where you’d like it, press the switch to stop the line, and then repeat this process for the horizontal access. This lets you use the mouse with only a single key. OS X even lets you add custom functions to the Switch panel, which is performed by selecting the Panel Editor in the Switch menu.

Accessibility Elsewhere

While most of the important access tools are in the Accessibility menu there are some other areas of System Preferences that may be relevant. They include:

General: Here you can change the color theme of OS X


Display: Can be used to change resolution, scaling, brightness and color gamut.

Dock: This is where you change the size of the dock, its position, whether it automatically hides and more

A Mac OS X Guide To Accessibility Features Screen Shot 2014 05 28 at 2

Sound: Used to change volume and when audio notifications are played.

Keyboard: Here you can change keyboard layout, enable accessibility-related shortcuts, adjust key delay and customize spellcheck.

Dictation & Speech: This is where you turn on dictation, which enables input via voice in some applications (can be enabled by double tapping the Fn key). You can also have your system read system alerts to you, turn on text-to-speech 7 Steps to Make Computers Accessible for the Elderly Read More of select text via a keyboard shortcut, and change the voice your system uses.

Third Party Tools

Accessibility features in OS X are impressive, but the OS doesn’t do everything. There are a few third-party tools that can fill in the gaps that Apple’s operating system doesn’t cover.

A Mac OS X Guide To Accessibility Features Screen Shot 2014 05 28 at 2

Keymo – Want to use the mouse without a mouse? Keymo is another way to do it. This app’s function is somewhat redundant with OS X’s built-in accessibility features, but its interface is more straightforward and provides a wider variety of options.

MenuPop – This 99 cent app provides quick access to a program’s menu via a hotkey of your choice. While meant for productivity, it’s also great for anyone who has difficulty using a mouse or trackpad.

PinPoint [No longer available] – A free program, PinPoint is a cursor customization utility that lets you add an image around the cursor, making it easier to identify. This app is only $4.99 on the Mac App Store Get Easier Updates With These Alternative App Stores For Mac Tired of manually installing and updating Mac apps? Check out these alternatives to the Mac App Store, offering downloads and updates the App Store can't. Read More .

A Mac OS X Guide To Accessibility Features Screen Shot 2014 05 28 at 2

Proloquo – This utility lets a user create custom speech panels that are associated with images and text, which makes finding and activating the correct word or phrase easier. Users who have difficulty using a keyboard will find this very useful. Unfortunately, a full license is $299.

Read & Write Gold [Broken URL Removed]  Designed for people with reading difficulties, this app can read text from most documents and photos, block out unwanted areas of the screen to decrease distraction, and provides easy access to a comprehensive dictionary. Unfortunately, this app sells at a massive $649.


You should now be fairly familiar with the accessibility options offered by Mac OS X. If you have any questions, or further recommendations, be sure to leave a comment.

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  1. Ford Miura
    November 17, 2016 at 11:12 pm

    My name is Ford Miura and I have ALS, when can we disabled people living with diseases like ALS expect a EYE GAZE system for Mac?

    Tobii/Dynavox provides one for PC but we loyal and devoted MAC users are suffering out here, using aPC is very hard once getting hooked on a MAC. I feel abandoned by Apple because it seems as though you don't care about people with disabilities. I am loosing my hands, arms and speech, I need to my eyes to type and access the web.......CAN YOU HELP ME AND COUNTLESS OTHERS LIKE ME?

  2. Dd
    June 11, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    Thanks, but I thought this article would be a detailed review.
    Hardly worth the bits, really.

  3. Kit K
    June 11, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    Despite Apple's claim that their products can do everything possible for the physically challenged - the products and software CAN"T DO some really fundamental functions --- case in point --- say, I am a quadriplegic. I have voice, eye movement but cannot control an iPhone or Mac using any kind of physical/mechanical contact - despite how good SIRI is in taking voice commands - I can't monitor, control, search for contact, dial, answer, communicate, hang-up using JUST voice commands. I have contacted Apple Accessibility Group several times to NO avail !!!!

    If there is a comprehensive solution that it understandable by non-techies - please publish it !!

    Just think of how may people could use this - whether for the disabled or even for surgeons in an operating room, workers in haz-mat suits, etc ...why is this ??? If anyone has the solution I NEED TO KNOW !!! Please contact me at kitDOTkennardATsympaticoDOTca.