A Brief History
I got my first iOS device, an iPod Touch (fourth generation), for Christmas in 2010. I was resistant at first, but eventually warmed up to it and grew to rely on it more than the braille notetaker I had used for over eight years. Given that positive experience with Apple, and all the comments about VoiceOver on the Mac I'd been hearing, I decided to give the Mac a shot. In 2011, I purchased the cheapest Mac I could, a low-end Mac Mini.
Having been trained on Windows for years, the first thing I did was install Windows on a Bootcamp partition. I used that OS almost exclusively for a year, for two reasons. First, I had no way to hook my monitor to the Mac, and that caused it to slow down, whereas Windows could run fine with no screen. Second, the Mac seemed a bit sluggish compared to Windows, and I was used to the instant response of NVDA, so I stuck with what I liked more, never really giving OSX a chance.
In 2012 I volunteered for five weeks at a school for the blind, helping to teach the students assistive technology. I brought my Mac with me--it is one of the most portable desktops I have ever seen, and I figured it would do just fine so long as I kept it booted into Windows (I was traveling to the school by bus, so had no way to carry an entire monitor with me). This would have worked out just fine, except that a rather nasty bug in a new speech synthesizer I was trying out at the time rendered Windows pretty much useless. Since I had no way to connect a screen to my computer, I could not even get sighted help to resolve the problem, so I was effectively unable to use Windows. My only other choice: finally give OSX a fair shot.
In the year and a half since, I have become a convert to OSX. I put more ram in my Mini, and got an adapter so I could hook up a monitor, and things are running fine. Below, I want to give the major reasons why I decided to use the Mac over Windows. I will then point out the downsides to the Mac that I have found so far. I will not spend much time on the features that are not directly related to accessibility. For example, the amount of content that automagically syncs between my Mac and iPhone is great, and is part of why I use a Mac, but it is not specific to accessibility and so will not be talked about.
Why I Love It
VoiceOver is Built Deeply into Every Mac
Once you know VoiceOver on your Mac, you know it on every Mac back to 2005 or so. You can walk up to just about any Mac computer, hit command-f5, and have a familiar screen reader pop up. You can even put your VoiceOver preferences on a thumb drive, and VoiceOver on any Mac can use them in place of its defaults. It's sort of like carrying NVDA on a thumb drive, but better. You don't need to wonder which of the five major screen readers a computer might be running, if it has one at all; you don't need to try to figure out how to launch an installed screen reader; you don't need to worry about the computer not having an authorization and stopping your screen reader after forty minutes; you don't need to figure out which keyboard layout is in use, or what changes someone else might have made to key bindings. Any Mac running a reasonably modern operating system will have basically the same screen reader you already know.
Perhaps you're thinking, "but I've never encountered a Mac in the wild, so this doesn't matter to me"? I haven't either, but consider this. Last week, a friend of mine lent me his 2010 Macbook because it wouldn't boot. I booted into a recovery disk I already had on hand (which I created independently), ran some disk repairs, wiped the hard disk, installed Mavericks, and ran through the initial setup process. Through all that, I had to ask for sighted assistance only twice, once to ask what the computer was doing when it refused to boot, and once to see why it had frozen up (that second one I solved with a hard shutdown, and really, I didn't need to ask at all). Windows and Linux users could not do that. I've also worked on other macs, at home and with visually impaired students at a nearby school, and I never needed to install or worry about anything because each one had the same VoiceOver I already knew.
Since VoiceOver is so deeply integrated into the Mac's operating system, everything but the initial boot process is fully accessible. This includes setting up your new Mac, installing operating system updates and patches, accessing recovery mode, and other areas where Windows is not able to speak.
As long as I can remember, Windows screen readers have done really odd things. Freezing up, reading random image numbers, losing focus, sometimes reading more or less information than usual, and so on. In the case of Jaws, any system modification (such as adding RAM or installing a new version of Windows) would force you to re-authorize Jaws. Two modifications, and you had to get ahold of Freedom Scientific and ask them to reset your authorization count before you could use the full version of Jaws again. Yes, screen readers like NVDA don't have authorization problems, but they can still exhibit very odd behavior.
Is Voiceover perfect? No, of course not. However, I experience far less oddities with it than I did with NVDA or Jaws. When something strange does happen, it is usually a setting I changed and not Voiceover misbehaving. Yes, some apps have trouble with VoiceOver, most notably Xcode, but in general I find VoiceOver to be more stable and predictable than anything on Windows. It helps that OSX runs more smoothly than Windows, and that when a program locks up, the entire computer is not affected. If, for example, Firefox freezes on Windows, I cannot do anything with the machine until it eventually un-freezes or lets me open Task Manager, Through all that, of course, NVDA is silent. When an app freezes on the Mac, VoiceOver tells me the app is "busy", but I can use the rest of the Mac with no problems at all. It is very, very rare for my entire computer to lock up on me--in fact, I cannot remember the last time it happened.
NOTE: my comment about Xcode may lead some to think that VoiceOver is not well supported by Xcode. On the contrary, the two work together well. However, when VoiceOver is running, newer versions of Xcode can sometimes slow down. Such decreases in performance are not seen when Voiceover is disabled.
Apple's implementation of braille support isn't perfect, but it is good. The best feature is the automatic support for over forty displays right out of the box. I have never been able to get my BrailleNote Apex to work with Jaws or NVDA, yet it worked immediately on my Mac the first time I tried it. I can also easily customize the braille key assignments, getting rid of ones I never use and replacing them with commands I need. There is no need to find and fight with special drivers, restart your screen reader, find the proper com port, virtualize any ports, or anything else I've had to try in Windows over the years. Instead, the process is easy, fast, and, in my experience, reliable.
OSX has offered Realspeak voices from Nuance since OS10.7 Lion. It seems that, with each major OSX update, new or improved voices are offered; Mavericks brought us the latest "expressive" voices, including Oliver, Ava, and others. They sound great, and they are system-wide. That means that any app that can use text to speech can use them.
By contrast, Jaws comes with similar voices, but they are tied to your Jaws installation. They cannot be used by other apps, not even other screen readers. NVDA has these voices available, but you must pay $100 to get them, and they are still not SAPI5 (meaning that other applications cannot use them). Yes, the Mac lacks the familiar voices like Eloquence or Espeak, but it does have low-quality (and therefore faster) voices available, such as Fred or Ralph. Yes, you can get system-wide voices for Windows, but they start at $25 each and only go up from there.
Windows comes with a basic wordprocessor (Notepad), a web browser, a media player, and that's pretty much it. If you want a calendar, or advanced wordprocessor, or mail client, or plenty of other apps, you have to download them. (Note: Windows 8 may be different, but I am speaking about Windows 7 as I have no experience with anything newer).
When you boot up your Mac and, it is worth repeating, configure everything with no sighted help, you will have a bunch of apps ready to go. Mail, Calendar, Reminders, Text Edit (which does far more than Notepad), and more, all ready and waiting. No need to find and install Windows Live anything, or purchase an over-priced Microsoft Office package. In fact, if it is productivity you want, open up the App Store and grab a powerful wordprocessor/design tool (Pages), a spreadsheet program (Numbers), and a Powerpoint app (Keynote), all for free. (Note: these apps are free so long as you purchased your Mac new, after September of 2013). All three are fully accessible, and with Voiceover already built in, you would be hard pressed to find a platform on which it is easier to get up and running with similar software.
Additionally, the built-in apps are, generally, easier to use than their Windows counterparts. Internet Explorer, for instance, has popups that some screen readers never announce and that cannot be moved to with a hotkey. Outlook is, the last time I looked, usable, but inconsistent and not very efficient for screen reader users. Overall, I find the apps that the Mac comes with to be far more screen reader friendly than those that come with Windows, not to mention more stable.
Using Safari is very different from using Firefox or Internet Explorer, but it has its upsides. First, you can jump by heading, link, table, and a few other elements without switching modes at all, while still being able to type text in edit fields or issue keyboard commands to the webpage. Second, Quick Nav (the mode that lets you move around with only the arrow keys and use first-letter web element navigation) is customizable--you can change which keys move by which elements. You can also assign trackpad gestures, such as control-flick down to move by heading. Doing so eliminates the need to mess with Quick Nav or the rotor.
Safari also includes a function called Reader. This is a way to strip extra stuff from a page, leaving only the "meat" of it for you to read. It works best on articles or blogs, and is a great way to avoid having to figure out a page's structure so you can move to the content you want to read. While not strictly an accessibility feature, Reader has huge benefits for VoiceOver users, so I thought I would include it here.
The Apple Accessibility Team
Apple lets VoiceOver, Zoom, and other accessibility service users call or email them directly. They will answer questions, accept bug reports, and offer workarounds or suggestions for bugs they are working on fixing. This level of contact and support is wonderful, especially for new users who may not be sure where to start. Plus, while reporting a bug does not mean it will be fixed immediately, it is comforting to have the confirmation that your report was seen and passed along. Microsoft offers an accessibility department as well, but when I called them to ask some simple questions about Windows Phone screen readers, my experience was not at all pleasant or informative. By contrast, I have yet to have a bad experience while talking to anyone at Apple.
what Drives me Crazy
Using a Mac is not all roses, and the Mac is not right for everyone. To keep things balanced and provide an accurate picture of this platform, I will now tell you all the things that drive me nuts about the Mac.
VoiceOver is Not an App
VoiceOver is, as I said, very tightly integrated into the Mac's operating system. While this lets it speak during system updates, recovery mode, and other places Windows screen readers cannot, it has one major drawback. Since it is not its own app, it cannot be updated like other apps. To update VoiceOver, Apple has to update OSX as a whole. If something is missing or broken for VoiceOver users in an OSX update, the fix is not a quick trip to the App Store to grab a newer version of VoiceOver. Instead, you must wait until Apple releases another OSX update, which can often take a while and may not fix the bug at all.
Slow Updates and Unsolved Bugs
VoiceOver has bugs, like any application on any computer anywhere. However, it can take far longer to get them fixed than in other screen readers, and that can be very frustrating depending on the bug in question.
For example, the initial release of OS10.9 Mavericks included a bug where Finder would lock up in a certain view when Voiceover was in use. As you may know, that was in October of 2013. It was only in OS10.9.2 that the problem was fixed… Almost four months later. It took over a year for the commands that move between Web Spots in Safari to get flipped around--for a long time, the "next web spot" command moved you backward, and vice versa. Nuance voices on the Mac still say the word "capital" before a capital letter, no matter what VoiceOver is set to do when it encounters uppercase letters. I could go on, but you get the point; bugs, from small to not-so-small, can and do persist for a long time. Some, the critical ones, are fixed right away--I don't mean to imply that VoiceOver is a mess of bugs and broken features--but some hang around no matter what you do.
Are these problems show-stoppers? Not at all. Still, coming from a screen reader like NVDA, where the developers respond to user input personally and where several major releases come out every year, it can be a shock to encounter this seeming lack of support from Apple. It is also frustrating to put up with bugs that seem like they would be trivial to fix. Of course, in a huge company like Apple, where VoiceOver is one in a long list of apps and services to keep running, we can only guess at how things are prioritized. Apple does let users contact their Accessibility Team directly, but alerting them to a bug does not guarantee a fix, only that it is now on the list. People should also remember that accessibility is more than VoiceOver; there is Zoom, subtitles, switch control, and other features for a range of disabilities. When VoiceOver becomes one in a list of services, it is easier to see why bugs might hang on so long, though this does not help users be less frustrated.
Less Powerful Scripting
In Windows screen readers, applications that are not accessible can sometimes be made more so through scripts. In Jaws one uses the Jaws Scripting Language, in NVDA the Python language, and so on. Interface elements can be re-classified, key-presses simulated, and more. VoiceOver can be controlled through Applescript, but not to the same degree. Of course, I find far less situations on the Mac where such a capability would be useful (in fact, to date I have yet to need this feature), but the fact remains that VoiceOver is not as scriptable as Windows screen readers.
Yes, it's a pro and a con, in my view. Web browsing is a huge part of most computer activities today, so every operating system needs a solid web browser. Safari is Apple's answer, and it performs very, very well. For VoiceOver users, however, the switch to Safari can be a shock, and there are aspects that may always annoy some people, no matter how long they use the mac.
In Windows, you can use the arrow keys on webpages just as you can in regular documents. That is, you can read line by line, word by word, and so forth, while having access to keys to jump around a page based on different elements. The Mac includes similar hotkeys, two sets of them in fact, and offers the same arrow key navigation. The problem is that VoiceOver still treats each "chunk" as a separate entity. This can be seen if you review part of a paragraph with the arrow keys, then decide you want to start reading from there. You issue the "say all" command, and VoiceOver starts reading… at the beginning of the paragraph. Focus was on the whole chunk of text, so VoiceOver reads from that chunk, not from exactly where you were inside it.
Safari has other oddities that may not be apparent until you've used it for a while. It has its advantages, such as no "forms mode" to worry about and automatic auto-fill and bookmark backup to iCloud, but navigating the web using Safari and Voiceover is very, very different from Windows. It took me years to get to the point where I can honestly say that I no longer miss Firefox on Windows, and even now, the slight lag present in much of VoiceOver is something that makes itself apparent if you browse the same page on a Mac on Windows, side by side. That's not to say Safari is at all unusable or slower, it just takes a lot to use Safari's strengths and work around what it can't do as efficiently.
The Mac has a great deal to offer. Aside from the mainstream features (deep iCloud integration, outstanding build quality, service, good out-of-the-box apps, and much more) it is amazingly accessible. Want to try out a mac? You can walk up to any Mac in your local computer store, hit command-f5, and go for it. Try that on Windows, and, well, it's not going to happen. VoiceOver is more than a basic screen reader, though; it has a rich set of settings, full braille support, a plethora of voices, such good OS integration that you can turn it on during a system update, scripting abilities, and more. In my experience, VoiceOver, and the Mac in general, run more smoothly and reliably than Windows, and the hardware is great. The Mac can be used for everything from productivity to entertainment, and once you know VoiceOver's commands, you can do it all. Even if you have never used a particular app before, if you know the basics of VoiceOver, you can figure it out (provided, of course, that said app is accessible). No fiddling with multiple cursor modes or virtualizing the screen, you just use the same commands you're used to.
On the down side, the Mac is a more expensive machine at the outset (to those saying they would buy a screen reader anyway, I point you to NVDA). VoiceOver is part of the operating system, which means that any problems have to wait for OS updates to get fixed. Yes, you can email or call the Apple Accessibility team directly, but such communication does not guarantee that your feedback will make it into the next, or any, update. Apple has made extraordinary progress in the accessibility field, and they continue to do so, but sometimes the "little things" seem to get overlooked, or features that seem obvious never arrive.
The way I see it, the debate comes down to this: do you want the myriad advantages of the Mac, at the cost of a screen reader that is updated less often than those on Windows and over whose features you have less control, or do you want a cheaper but less stable and feature-packed/easy to use package, with a screen reader that gets frequent updates and seems to respond more to user feedback? VoiceOver is mature enough that I don't feel I need all those updates to be productive and happy with my Mac. Are there bugs I wish could be eradicated, and features I wish would be added? Absolutely! Does not having these fixes and features inhibit my ability to efficiently use my Mac? No, not for me at least. Do the benefits of the Mac platform and Apple ecosystem outweigh the advantages I would get from a Windows screenreader? Yes. Is this entirely subjective? Of course, and that's why I wrote this article. I wanted to give an honest assessment of where I feel the Mac excels, and where potential users need to know it lacks.
If you found this useful, if you hated it, if I missed something, if you think I'm an idiot for choosing Mac… Leave a comment. Why do you still prefer Windows? Why did you switch to the Mac? What issues are keeping you from choosing one over the other? What questions do you have about the mac's accessibility? Don't forget, you can also tweet @VOTips with your Apple Accessibility questions or comments.