Braille Monitor                                                    October 2009

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A Second Look at Apple’s VoiceOver

by Steven M. Sawczyn

From the Editor: Last April, when the June issue of the Braille Monitor was in production, I learned that the International Braille and Technology Center (IBTC) staff was preparing a review of VoiceOver, Apple’s accessibility solution for the Mac computer. The article was titled “Ease of Access of the Apple OS 10.5 Leopard Environment with VoiceOver," and I gathered from staff warnings that the piece would be controversial.

I took the warning seriously, but as a distinctly untechnical person, I really had no idea what was about to happen. Listservs filled with condemnations of the article and accusations that I had undoubtedly received pay-offs from Freedom Scientific and GW Micro for publishing the piece. Some of the reaction was so violent that it was hard to take seriously. But other voices were concerned and balanced and persuaded me that we must make a serious effort to take a second look at VoiceOver. It seemed logical to ask someone who uses and likes VoiceOver to report on the product from personal experience.

We settled on Steve Sawczyn of Maine. He teaches access technology, which means that he is quite familiar with the screen readers used on Microsoft computers. But he has chosen to use VoiceOver and a Mac to meet his personal computing needs. When approached, he readily agreed to write something that would allow our readers to understand what he sees as the strengths of VoiceOver. This is what he says:

I read with much concern the article titled “Ease of Access of the Apple OS 10.5 Leopard Environment with VoiceOver" that appeared in the June 2009 Braille Monitor. Although I recognize that, by definition, reviews are subjective, I was surprised at the erroneous information presented in the June article. My purpose in writing this article is both to correct these inaccuracies and to present another point of view.


I have been a blind computer user since the mid-eighties, having cut my teeth on the Apple IIe. Back then accessibility was prevalent in part because of the text-based environment in which most programs operated but mainly because of the hard work performed by a select few with a vision of the way in which computer technology could empower the blind. With the advent of Apple's Macintosh, the landscape changed a bit, focusing more on graphical user interfaces, and for obvious reasons these posed huge challenges in accessibility.

Like everyone else I needed to get things done, and, although I fervently hoped accessibility would come to the Mac, I migrated to a DOS-based PC. Windows eventually came into being and with it the same challenges of providing accessibility in a graphical user interface. In order to aid accessibility efforts, Microsoft eventually released Microsoft Active Accessibility, MSAA. By working with screen-reader and other access providers, Microsoft achieved a level of accessibility in Windows that allowed us to use this mainstream operating system. Meanwhile, back on Apple's Mac platform, accessibility efforts were restricted to the hard work of one company, Alva Access, who developed a screen reader, OutSpoken. Apple did not provide Alva with any sort of accessibility layer with which to work and frankly didn't seem to prioritize accessibility for the blind in any way.

In Maine former Governor King introduced the Maine Learning in Technology Initiative, legislation that provided a portable computer to all seventh- and eighth-grade public school students. His idea was to create an environment that would teach Maine’s students to work with technology in a hands-on way instead of offering theoretical classes. This news excited me because blind students could easily collaborate with their sighted peers so technology would level the playing field. Many vendors were keen to provide Maine with the technology for this program, most notably Apple, who eventually won the bid. I was outraged when I heard this news because now the very governmental program I had hoped would mainstream blind students more effectively would in fact have the opposite effect.

We lobbied, contacted legislators, and held protests. Eventually the state sent a clear signal to Apple that accessibility matters. This did not, however, stop the state from choosing Apple at a time when no access solution existed. Even Alva Access, the company that had tried hard for many years to develop the one and only screen reader for the Mac, had thrown in the towel and ceased all development efforts for the Mac. Apple promised Maine that it was working on something that would provide accessibility for the blind; all we had to do was to be patient just a bit longer. I didn't believe any of this and was therefore surprised when with the advent of Apple's 10.4, Tiger operating system, it introduced VoiceOver. Being a pessimist by nature, I thought that Apple would claim to have met its obligation in providing accessibility for the blind and that nothing further would be forthcoming. With the release of Apple's 10.5, Leopard operating system, I admitted grudgingly that Apple seemed committed to accessibility even though it was the latecomer to the party.

I am self-employed as an assistive technology consultant and trainer and believe it's my job to remain up on any technology that might enable one of my clients to accomplish a task. Such tasks can range from keeping track of a shopping list to working in a corporate environment. Although I provide more training to Windows users, I personally use a Mac and have been doing so since the release of the Leopard operating system reviewed in the June article. Although no system is perfect and the Mac definitely has its shortcomings, I find that the Mac allows me to accomplish necessary tasks with few exceptions.


One thing to keep in mind when evaluating the Mac for your own needs is that it is not Windows. There are similarities, but the Mac is its own system with its own unique characteristics and ways of doing things. A blind user switching to the Mac from the Windows environment encounters the same issues as a sighted person making the same switch, mainly that there are different ways of getting things done and different tools to do them. Recognizing that Windows is the predominant operating system today, Apple has done a great job of developing a number of resources for switchers. These include tutorials for accomplishing common tasks, videos demonstrating using the Mac's various tools, and concise manuals illustrating how to perform tasks on the Mac when one is used to performing the task using Windows software. As a former Outlook addict I used virtually all of Outlook's features for one thing or another. So I found these tutorials very helpful. For VoiceOver Apple provides a number of online resources to help users understand how VoiceOver functions in the operating system and within specific applications.


Before we continue, it is important to understand Apple's philosophy concerning accessibility since this defines the way users experience the Mac, the way documentation is created, and the relationship between third-party software and VoiceOver. In a nutshell Apple believes that applications should be developed in a universally accessible way, that is, with accessibility in mind. To help make this happen, Apple has introduced programming guidelines to help developers develop for accessibility. If a program is properly written in Apple's COCOA programming language and if the developer follows all of the standard programming guidelines as set forth by Apple, the application should be accessible without a thought for accessibility. The assumption of course is that developers will use Apple's COCOA language and that they will follow all Apple's guidelines. This is not always the case, so as a result the Mac certainly does have inaccessible applications. Apple's system, however, encourages users to bring accessibility issues directly to developers rather than waiting for VoiceOver to receive an update through which specific application accessibility can be provided. Apple insists that blind users should use their Macs in exactly the same way as their sighted peers do. Although I found this initially confusing, Apple really does mean that, if a sighted user needs to drag and drop an icon, a task normally performed with the mouse, a blind user should do exactly the same thing, albeit without the physical use of the mouse. Apple believes that, if product documentation refers to a blue icon located on the left side of the screen, the blind user should be able to find that blue icon, should know that it's blue, and should understand its position in relation to other objects on the screen. Coming from Windows, I found this quite a bit to take in. After all, Windows solutions generally provide information to the user when needed, and more often than not the information is exactly and only what the user needs at that moment. Using the Mac, I would be expected to understand and operate in a visual environment in almost exactly the same way as every other Mac user. Admittedly, I initially didn't care about the relationship of objects on the screen--I just wanted to get things done. In time, however, I found this approach provided a greater understanding of the application and, more important, the ability to discuss the application in terms others understand.

As for VoiceOver documentation, Apple does not go into detail about the use of specific applications. After all, the assumption is that blind users will use the application the same way as everyone else, so we should read that application documentation and follow the same learning path as everyone else. Specific mention was made in the June article of the lack of documentation for new account creation, etc., in Mail. Because these are not VoiceOver-specific tasks, Apple has apparently concluded that it is not necessary to rehash documentation already present in the Mail application. Yes, the Mail application does contain many pages of help files describing new account creation, a wizard helps you get started, and Apple's Website has tutorials and videos to assist those migrating from Outlook. The resources exist; they're just not VoiceOver resources, so they are not in the VoiceOver documentation. I don’t intend to nit-pick the June article, but I think that the missing-documentation assertion comes down to a lack of understanding of Apple's Accessibility philosophy, which admittedly is very different from that governing access to Windows. Whether you agree with Apple's philosophy or not, understanding it is crucial if you plan to use the Mac successfully.


Many applications are included as part of Apple's Leopard operating system, meaning that, depending on what a user is planning to do, he or she may not have to purchase software beyond that provided by Apple. Specifically, Leopard contains a word processor that offers some advanced formatting, a highly configurable email application, a calendar/task-management application, media player, Web browser, spell-checker, dictionary, other grammar-related tools, chat application, disk/file management applications, and much more. Windows provides many similar tools, but some are missing, including my favorite, the spell checker, which is generally installed with Microsoft Office and is not part of the Windows operating system. Leopard's spell checker works two ways: the user can invoke a dialog that finds misspelled words, presents suggestions--very similar to the way spell-check in Microsoft Office works, or it can provide feedback while typing that a word is misspelled, and it provides a way to see a list of possible correct spellings immediately.

Fortunately for me, the spell-checker works just about anywhere text can be typed, including places you'd expect: TextEdit (the word processor), mail, etc. But it also works in places one might not expect: filling out forms on the Web, in chat, in most third-party applications, etc. Because I often contribute to forums or post items on Facebook, I personally love the ability to spell-check anywhere. The other application worth mentioning is Apple's iCal calendar and task management product. Professionally, I need to keep track of many appointments and meetings weekly, and personally I need to keep track of my two active school-age kids, who are constantly on the move. Using iCal, I manage two calendars while subscribing to a number of others. iCal allows me to see a combined view of all of this, enabling me to make appointments without missing a sporting event I might have promised to attend. I realize that this is nothing new for Outlook users, but the June article suggests that iCal isn't very usable by the blind. Several tips and tricks can make it easier for a blind user to use iCal just as several improve a user's experience with the Outlook calendar. I would love to see iCal's documentation updated to include these suggestions and am hopeful that actively submitting feedback will eventually make this happen.


Many people, me included, use a Mac every day to accomplish all of their computing needs. By providing integrated accessibility, Apple makes it possible for me, as a blind person, to go to the store, buy a Mac, and immediately start using it without first installing additional software. Is there a learning curve? Absolutely yes, but isn't there always when learning to use a new system? As mentioned earlier, the Mac isn't Windows, and, although I'm certainly guilty of making comparisons from time to time, the systems are inherently different, and it's important to keep that in mind. Is the Mac perfect for everyone? Absolutely not. Just like other solutions, the Mac has its share of drawbacks, and whether a system is the right one for you depends on many factors. I work with people in all age groups, and I can assure you that in most cases college students and people in their eighties wish to accomplish very different tasks. I am disturbed that the International Braille and Technology Center is content not to recommend the Mac on the ground of lack of productivity, ignoring the fact that many people are using the Mac productively and that productivity means very different things to different people. I am also concerned that the IBTC decided to review Leopard over a year and a half after its release and shortly before Apple's newest operating system, Snow Leopard, is due to be released. This would be analogous to my conducting a review of Windows Vista, a product that has been available for quite a while.

Although I emphatically disagree with many assertions and claims in the June article, I believe that the issue comes down to a lack of understanding that the Mac concept of accessibility varies greatly from that of Windows. I was also surprised at the shortness of the time given the review team. I know it often takes me a week to learn an entirely new system.

As you review the Mac for yourself, I would urge you to keep a few things in mind. First, and I can't mention this often enough, it's not Windows. Mac Mail isn't Outlook, TextEdit isn't Microsoft Word, and, although I certainly see the value of comparing these products side by side, they're not the same, just as the Icon and Maestro are not the same, the PAC Mate and BrailleNote are not the same, a Windows Mobile phone and its Symbian counterpart are not the same, etc. The other thing to keep in mind as you evaluate the Mac is that resources exist in the form of Webpages, mailing lists, podcasts, reviews, and of course the personal experiences of users who are successfully using a Mac efficiently and productively every day. In addition to Apple's own accessibility page; < >, third-party tutorials and information can be found at <>. In addition, I would be happy to speak with anyone about the Mac; I can be contacted by phone at (207) 512-2387 or by email at <[email protected]>.

Apple definitely has a tough road ahead given its late foray into accessibility. However, given its demonstrated commitment thus far, I'm optimistic that the VoiceOver solution will only improve. After all, Leopard heralded many advancements in accessibility over its former operating system, Tiger. It will be interesting to see what its new operating system will bring.


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