Debunking Common Myths about VoiceOver on the Mac

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team


Macs have been fully accessible since 2005, but those who have never used one may still believe the myths about VoiceOver that have been around almost as long as VoiceOver itself. Even long-time users may be doing extra work, not even realizing that there are shortcuts or steps they can skip. I would like to take this opportunity to dispel these long-standing myths, and maybe make you more comfortable with the idea of switching to, or at least trying out, a Mac.


The Myth

VoiceOver is different from Windows screen readers in that it operates on a strictly hierarchical structure of the screen. In English, that means that it groups things together, and to access those things, you have to tell it to go into that group. Using VoiceOver is nothing but constantly issuing extra keystrokes to try and find things; meanwhile, in Windows World, people are just tabbing along happily, not caring about what's grouped with what. Using a Mac, then, is way less efficient because of this stupid idea that to get to a button, or text field, or whatever, you have to interact. Then you have to stop interacting, move further along, and interact somewhere else to find the next thing you want. Seriously, how do these crazy Mac users get anything done?

In Reality…

Yes, interaction is central to VoiceOver, but that is not a bad thing. In fact, in many ways, it makes user interfaces make a lot more sense, and is often a way to more quickly navigate than just tabbing to everything in a window.

The biggest part of this myth seems to be that tabbing does not work. In actuality, tab works exactly the same on the Mac as it does in Windows, and I tab all the time. There is a setting that is usually enabled by default, that lets the tab key operate normally; if your tab key does not work, you can just enable that setting, and that's it. You can even press control-f7 to toggle between tab moving to text fields only, or all items.

Furthermore, you rarely need to interact with tables to move through them. The VoiceOver Utility, for instance, has a table of categories from which to choose, but you don't need to interact with that table. Just move to it and press up or down arrow to move from item to item. Most tables work this way, and will read the entire row as you arrow along. If you want to examine individual cells, that's when you interact, otherwise you generally don't need to bother. Some tables do require interaction, yes, but they tend to be in third-party apps (such as Skype).

Interaction is also not required in Finder, which is where many people get hung up. You can up and down arrow in Finder just like you can in Windows, so long as you select either List (command-2) or Column (command-3) view first. If you want to find out how a filename or other bit of information is spelled, you can interact with it and move character by character, or hit VO-w twice.

Similarly, text fields do not require interaction. Reading a document in Text Edit, typing something in a form in Safari, writing an email, entering a password… None of that will fail if you don't interact with the text field first. It makes life easier sometimes, particularly for editing your text, but it is not a necessity. Besides, as I said, tab can auto-interact, so even if you like to interact with everything, just tab to it and save yourself the extra keystroke.

Interacting really shines when the interface has distinct areas. Toolbars are good examples of this. In Windows, if there is a toolbar, you must tab through the entire thing to get past it. By contrast, you can simply vo-arrow past a toolbar on a Mac to avoid it. Apps like iTunes, Xcode, Garageband, and others use this model a lot, and it makes them very efficient to get around.

Interaction is also central to the touch exploration of your screen, for those with trackpads. Like iOS, Voiceover on the Mac lets you move a finger around the screen and hear what you are touching. The area you are exploring is set by interacting. Open Finder, for instance, and you can feel where the toolbar, sidebar, file list, and other things are. Interact with, say, the sidebar, and what you are feeling is just the sidebar. This lets you get an idea of where things are and how the screen is set up, but would not work nearly as well without the concept of interaction to let you decide what you want to explore.

The bottom line: interaction does exist, and it can be extremely helpful in examining a window or getting details. However, it is not used nearly as often as most people think, and it eventually becomes just another tool to use when necessary.

VoiceOver Keys

The Myth

When you use a Mac, you have to press the VoiceOver keys (control and option) all the time. Seriously, as soon as you boot up your Mac, you're holding those keys down, because VoiceOver can't do anything without them. Some people compare them to the Jaws or NVDA key in Windows, but it's more like they're the keys that let VoiceOver do anything. It's ridiculous - you can't even arrow through menus without holding them down!

In Reality…

The VoiceOver keys are required to move the VoiceOver cursor and issue other VoiceOver-specific commands. You do not, however, need to hold them down all the time. For instance, press VO-m to go to the menu bar; you can left, right, up, and down arrow exactly how you would in Windows, no VO keys necessary. Don't like VO-m? No problem, hit control-f2 instead.

As stated above, you also don't need the VO keys when moving up or down through a table. You can up/down arrow, with nothing else held down, in Mail, Finder, drop down menus, selection lists, text fields, and so forth. You can also use Quick Nav to eliminate the need to hold down the VO keys while examining a webpage or window, the two places they are most used. There is even a keystroke to virtually lock the VO keys down if you need it, but I have not used that command once since I switched to OS X in 2012, that is how seldom the VO keys are required to be used for an extended period.

Additionally, those with trackpads have access to gestures in the form of the Trackpad Commander. This gives you not only the touch exploration described above, but many of the swiping and tapping gestures already familiar to anyone who uses Voiceover on iOS. Instead of pressing control-option-right, you can simply do a one-finger swipe to the right; instead of control-option-shift-down to interact, do a two-finger swipe right. VoiceOver on the Mac expands the possibilities, with commands for moving to menus, listing open applications or windows, and more. Plus, you can assign your own commands to any gesture you like, so long as a modifier is pressed. You might, for instance, tell Voiceover to speak the time when you hold down the command key and do a one-finger swipe up. With three modifiers to pick from and around sixty gestures for each modifier, you will run out of commands before you run out of gestures.

text navigation

The Myth

In Windows, you have a ton of keystrokes to efficiently navigate text. Beginning or end of line, move by word, speak a character phonetically… All that is easy to do. The Mac doesn't have anything like that, and it's a lot harder to deal with text on a mac. Windows is just more efficient in this area. Oh yeah, and the cursor doesn't work right either. VoiceOver speaks the text you're going past, so you hear things spoken twice if you reverse direction, and it just doesn't make sense.

In Reality…

The mac includes as many navigational keystrokes as Windows, they are just different. The arrow keys by themselves operate just as they would in Windows. Command-left or command-right move to the start or end of a line, and command-up or command-down jump to the start or end of the document. Option-left and option-right move by word, option-up and option-down by paragraph. Just like in Windows, add shift to any of these commands to select text as you move past it.

The Mac goes a step further in two ways. First, it supports several commands that Windows simply does not have. For example, place your cursor between two letters and hit control-t, and those two characters are transposed. I use this a lot if I am typing too quickly and reverse, say the "th" in the word "the", which I do in that and other words more often than I like to admit. There are plenty of other keystrokes similar to this one, and they work just about anywhere you can type text. Two of my favorites are the deletion commands: option-delete erases the word to the left of the cursor, and command-delete erases the line to the left of the cursor. Oh, and the Mac even lets you input special characters, like bullets or ellipses, right from the keyboard: press option with the proper key and the symbol is inserted.

The other advantage to the Mac's text processing is spellcheck and auto-correct. Windows has these, of course, but the mac offers them system-wide. The same spellcheck commands, and the same dictionary to which you add words you want to be ignored, are used in nearly every program. If you tell the Mac to learn the spelling of a word in Text Edit, then enter that word in Safari, it is not flagged as misspelled.

Text expansion is also built into the Mac, letting you type a phrase that will expand into a full set of words. I have one defined for my email address, for instance; I type "xeml", and the mac offers to insert my full email address. Best of all, these sync over iCloud, so I can not only use them on any Mac I log into, but on all my iOS devices, too.

As to the cursor, it is true that VoiceOver speaks what it is passing. What people tend to forget is that this is actually how the cursor works for the sighted world, and once you get used to it, it makes a whole lot more sense than the Windows way. As you arrow right, say character by character, VoiceOver speaks the characters. Since you are moving right, you know that each character you hear is to the left of the cursor; if you press delete, the character you just heard will be erased. If you move back to the left, you know that what you hear is to the right of the cursor. This way, you are always aware of where you are in relation to your text. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it really is more efficient once you master it. Plus, if you simply can't get it, you can change VoiceOver to work the way Windows screen readers announce text.

Office productivity

The Myth

That's all good and well, but I need to do serious word processing. Say what you will, but we all know that nothing beats Microsoft Office with a modern screen reader, like NVDA. I mean come on, your Mac word processor can't even report font changes! There's no way a mac can go against Windows in terms of productivity and win.

In Reality…

Actually, the Mac can hold its own quite well. Apart from accessibility, it is cheaper; the Mac's productivity suite, made up of Pages for word processing, Keynote for powerpoint, and Numbers for spreadsheets, is free on all Macs bought from September of 2013 onward. Even if you don't have a free copy, each app is just $20. Altogether, that's less than you'd pay for MS office, even with a student discount (trust me, I've made the purchase). Additionally, the same apps exist for, and are quite accessible on, iOS, where they can sync documents across all your devices, just as you'd expect. Plus, if you prefer and/or absolutely need MS Office, the 2015 version for the Mac is mostly accessible. Thus, whether you prefer Microsoft's or Apple's productivity solution, you have the choice and VoiceOver will play nicely with whichever one you decide to use.

NOTE: at the time of this writing, many users are reporting a bug in MS Office on Mac where VoiceOver fails to read past the first page of a document. This is a serious bug, but given all the work Microsoft has already put into Office for Mac in terms of accessibility, it will likely be addressed relatively soon. I will update this post when and if the problem is fixed.

Now, the accessibility of formatting information. First, VoiceOver can report the font of text (hit VO-t). Second, use the Verbosity Options (VO-v) to change the "speak text attributes" to "speak", and you are told when any formatting of text changes as you read it. Third, and most importantly, Apple's iWork suite (Keynote, Pages, and Numbers) is fully accessible and, in some ways, much easier to use than MS office. No ribbons to worry about, no needing to upgrade to the latest Jaws version just to get office support back, and the layout is much easier to deal with. Again though, if you want to use Office, you now have that option as well.

This article is not about how to use iWork or Office, so I will not give exact instructions on anything. However, consider this: I spent a few hours with Office and Jaws on Windows last fall, figuring things out and trying to get things to work right. After twenty minutes with Pages, I was doing more than I had ever managed to figure out in those hours with Word.


The Myth

If you scan a lot of print material, you need Windows. Nothing compares to Openbook, no matter what anyone says.

In Reality…

There are several good apps for scanning and doing OCR on the Mac. Abbyy Fine Reader and Prizmo are the two most popular, with DocuScan Plus sometimes suggested as well. Again, this article is not an instruction manual, but suffice it to say that you can do all the scanning you want on your Mac.

web browsing

The Myth

Using VoiceOver to browse the internet is a slow, painful process. You have to go into some special mode just to be able to jump by headings or links, there's no feature to list all the links or other parts of a page, you can't arrow through a page like on Windows, and it's just not as efficient at all.

In Reality…

The idea that arrowing through a webpage is not supported on the Mac has actually been true for a long time. As of OS X Yosemite, though, Apple has finally introduced this long-awaited feature. You can use arrow keys, by themselves or with modifiers, to move around a webpage just like you would a document or email. Links and other HTML elements are read in-line, meaning that if a line has two links in it, VoiceOver will read the non-link and link text all at once. The only drawback to this method is that HTML elements are not announced, only text, at least as of the time of this writing. For example: headings, lists, and other non-actionable items are read as text, but their status as headings/lists/etc is not spoken.

Windows screen readers have commands to jump by heading, link, checkbox, table, and so forth. VoiceOver has them too, in two different sets. One set is always available and is hard-coded: vo-cmd-h moves by heading, vo-cmd-t by table, and more. The other, single-key navigation mode, is only available when Quick Nav is on. The nice thing about this is that you can customize which keys do what, something not all Windows screen readers allow.

The other great thing about Quick Nav is that it turns your arrow keys into a rotor, something most users of VoiceOver on iOS will already know all about. Not only can you press letters on the keyboard to move around, you can rotor to different items, then use up and down arrows to jump by the selected item. To access a list of items similar to this, but all in one window, simply hit vo-u. you can then left/right arrow (again, no VO keys required) between the different element types, and up/down arrow to the one you want, or start typing its name. Press enter when you are on the item you were looking for and you are taken right to it. If you have a trackpad, your life is even easier: the same rotor gestures you know and love on iOS work on the Mac, Quick Nav or not.

There is no special typing mode, like the forms or browse mode in most Windows screen readers, to worry about. If you are on an edit field, simply start typing (again, no need to interact). If you are on a page like Youtube that supports keyboard controls, just press them. As long as Quick Nav is disabled, this will all work just as it would if VoiceOver were off. Even if Quick Nav is on, tabbing to a form field, as opposed to arrowing to it or finding it with a hotkey, will cause typing to work just as you expect, by automatically disabling Quick Nav.

Bottom Line

There is a great deal to love about the Mac. Over the years, thanks to features that didn't used to be present but were added later, or all the other ways rumors get started, a lot of misinformation has sprung up around Voiceover. I hope this article has helped to set the record straight.

As always, you can find me on Twitter, @VOTips, or leave a comment right here on this page. Tell me what myths I missed, or what you are still wondering about regarding VoiceOver on the Mac.

Blog Tags



Submitted by Greg Wocher on Sunday, April 19, 2020

Most sighted developers use spaces rather than tabs. Voiceover will not read spaces when you move line by line thru code. On windows however NVDA will read indentation levels when moving line by line. For example NVDA will announce 4 spaces when reading a line of code in python. Emacs with Emacspeak will give this ability plus it does do code completion. Here is a good link with instructions on how to install emacs and Emacspeak:

Submitted by Ekaj on Monday, April 20, 2020

Hi all. A previous comment mentioned that Say-All is not reliable, and as much as I hate to say it I've found this largely to be the case. I guess it depends somewhat on the size of the document, but I recently downloaded 2 books from National Braille Press as well as some things from the Hadley Institute. They all open in Pages, and it seems that VoiceOver will read a small chunk of the document using Say-All, and then stop dead in its tracks. But I've found arrowing around works. Yes this is a bit more time-consuming especially in large documents such as the ones I'm reading. But I'm still sticking with Apple products for the foreseeable future.

Submitted by Ahmed on Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Hello, one longstanding misconception I would like to debunk is this idea that word processing with VOICEOVER on the mac is very difficult in reality, I as a VOICEOVER user myself, word processing isn't that difficult sure some folks would argue using VOICEOVER appears to be difficult that's because your always having to compare two different operating systems and two different SCREENREADERS for that matter. As I said previously, and I will say this again, MAC OS10 is designed differently, so their are things that are unique to MAC OS.
finally as I pointed out before, VOICEOVER the mac's SCREENREADER accomplishes tasks
differently. Finally, it's worth saying this, if you decide to learn the Mac operating system you need to approach it with an open mind.

Submitted by Vsevolod Popov on Wednesday, October 28, 2020

I was searching for something like that for about a year! I thought I don't get something about using mac, finally I got I do! I didn't know about tabbing and such things, I will definitely try all that! Thank you!!!!!

I think, and this could just be me, that it depends on the type of word processing that you're doing. If I was still in school and had to write a simple report I don't think it would be a problem. However, if I was in college, grad school, or writing something for a business that needed formatted headers, footers, and detailed formatting throughout the document I find that very difficult to do on a Mac.