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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.
Before you can worry about accessibility features 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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 – 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.