My Wishlist for VoiceOver in Mac OS X 10.12

It’s that time of year. With WWDC just one week away, Apple is getting ready to announce new versions of iOS and OS X, as well as possible tvOS and watchOS updates. While concrete information about these future releases is scarce, speculation and feature wish lists have begun popping up on mainstream tech websites.

Here are my top wishes for VoiceOver improvements in the next iteration of the Mac operating system, presumably OS X 10.12.

Bug fixes

Several months ago, I wrote a piece detailing the many lingering VoiceOver bugs in OS X El Capitan and the apparent inaction by Apple accessibility in resolving them. Those opinions still stand, with no accessibility changes in the latest release, 10.11.5.

Although the release of OS X El Capitan focused largely on stability and performance improvements throughout the OS, VoiceOver continues to suffer from a wide array of issues that contribute to a gradually degrading state of accessibility on the Mac platform. For this reason, it is long overdue for Apple to give a concerted focus to improving the stability, performance, and intuitiveness of VoiceOver.

This includes, first and foremost, fixes for the plethora of lingering accessibility bugs reported to Apple by members of the AppleVis community and that are well documented in the active bug list. For example, Apple could maximize the potential of the VoiceOver features introduced in El Capitan, such as the ability to use the caps lock key as the VoiceOver modifier and the ability to change the grouping behavior of elements by fixing the issues that render them currently unfeasible for many users.

Better performance

One area where VoiceOver has recently underperformed in comparison to Windows screenreaders is overall speed and responsiveness.

An example of this can be found when comparing the speed and reliability of typing feedback with VoiceOver versus other screenreaders. While some screenreaders report inputted text almost instantly, VoiceOver still sometimes fails to repeat every character or word, especially when the user is typing rapidly. Also, while quite rare, VoiceOver still fails to behave as expected when moving character by character, instead moving by word or losing focus in some other manner.

From personal experience, I have encountered this issue mostly while editing documents in Pages, but it’s possible other apps could be affected.

Furthermore, VoiceOver sometimes appears sluggish when navigating webpages in Safari, with the browser going, “Busy,” interrupting VoiceOver speech. This seems to occur on websites with a large number of frames. A check of the Activity Monitor utility shows the, “Safari web content,” process devouring an abnormally high percentage of the CPU. Turning VoiceOver off and on again within a few seconds causes the process to come down to an acceptable level; indicating that the issue is somehow related to VoiceOver interaction with the webpage.

While this can be difficult to reliably reproduce, I have experienced this issue on a variety of Macs at my disposal for testing or general use, and similar issues have been documented by other VoiceOver users.

In 2016, the everyday task of web browsing shouldn’t be so taxing for VoiceOver on modern desktop and notebook computers. Essentially, VoiceOver should become snappier.

Improved PDF support

Since the initial release of VoiceOver in 2005, the reading of PDF documents has never been great. This can be explained, in part, by some of the difficulties with the PDF format; such as forms or image based documents.

However, VoiceOver should include some long desired features, such as the ability to move through documents using the arrow keys, and a fix for a bug that could cause PDF files to crash Safari web content when clicking a link to a PDF document on a webpage. As PDF is a common format used in every-day life, blind Mac users should be able to make use of it like they would other document formats.

Improved support for web standards

As I have written about previously, web apps that have become quite capable over the years still don’t work as expected with VoiceOver.

For example, although Google services like Drive and Docs have made improvements in the area of accessibility, they still don’t operate like typical websites and thus don’t respond as expected to VoiceOver commands. This is all while the experience of other screenreaders such as NVDA on Windows and ChromeVox on Google Chrome have made these common services more usable for blind and low vision users.

Specific areas of improvement to VoiceOver could come in the form of better interaction with webpages with menus. On productivity services to social networking sites, I have experienced an issue where VoiceOver would get stuck in menus when trying to navigate a webpage with the VO left and right arrow keys. Menus on websites should behave as menus in desktop apps, only being revealed to the user when the command is given to execute, in this case VO space bar.

Revamped hints

While this request is far less important than the previous four, I feel it warrants discussion among Apple’s accessibility team.

In 2009, hints for using VoiceOver were introduced with the release of OS X Snow Leopard. Since then, Mac hardware has changed, with more Macs either having a built in trackpad or the ability to use a wireless Magic Trackpad.

Consequently, common literature for learning VoiceOver on the Mac teaches many concepts with the trackpad commander rather than the keyboard; similar to using an iOs device. This makes sense, as iOs is widely considered to be a, “Gateway drug,” into the Apple ecosystem. Blind users of iOs who have had success with using VoiceOver can migrate smoother using existing concepts rather than having to reinvent the wheel, which can be a time consuming and frustrating experience for anyone learning new technology.

However, VoiceOver hints still instruct users to use traditional keyboard commands. In order to make the VoiceOver experience more seamless for new users, the option to hear instructions for trackpad gestures instead of keyboard commands should be available.

This is just a small list of wishes. Here’s hoping at least some of these suggestions make it.

What would you like to see? Sound off in the comments.



Submitted by Steve on Tuesday, June 7, 2016

I work for a company who is heavily invested in OSX, but I find myself going back to a Linux VM to write and compile most of my code for one seemingly stupid reason; VoiceOver has no mechanism for reporting changes in line indentation which all Windows screen readers, and even Orca on Linux, have had for years. There are also no system or VoiceOver-specific events to hook which can provide this information as I navigate. This is something, too, which Windows AT and Orca have had in abundance for a long time. Apple, either get the basics working, or open VoiceOver up to serious scripting so that the screen reader shortcomings can be addressed by those of us with the know-how, and more importantly, the need to keep our jobs and be productive.

Submitted by Ekaj on Wednesday, June 8, 2016

I agree that the hints need to be updated. I have a sister who is also a VoiceOver user, but her over-all computer experience has been rather sporadic at best and I think that updated hints would be very helpful to someone like her. I'd also like to add in a recommendation of mine. I was talking with one of my tutors yesterday about accessibility in general, because he was curious about how exactly VoiceOver and the other screen readers work. This after we had left a very successful Genius Bar appointment. We got to thinking that iTunes should include some sort of voice-enabled search feature, and/or improved capabilities for the Search feature which already exists in iTunes. This might be Siri or something. I've never used Siri before, but I think it would be very useful to have a feature like this in iTunes. Or perhaps this is what Dictation Bridge is aiming to do? Gotta have a look at it because it sounds pretty cool.

Submitted by Tyler on Wednesday, June 8, 2016

I believe SIRI is one of the features rumored to be included in OS X 10.12, based on some early information on rumor sites.

Submitted by Hubert on Wednesday, June 8, 2016

I agree with most of the points mentioned here. VoiceOver performance has definitely seen it's fair share of problems in the last 2 years especially, I wouldn't say the accessibility of the Mac OS system is really downgrading, I'd say it's still very much accessible, and it's most certainly an option for many blind and partially sighted users.
The PDF issue is something I most definitely agree with, as this is one type of file I cannot read, and there's a very likely chance that I will have to use that format when I start working, so making that format easier to access with VoiceOver is something that I'd love to be finally done, as this is the format that's used frequently, and will continue to be used, so improvements really need to be made.
Something that hasn't been mentioned here, but I'd like to suggest it, is VoiceOver and Pages. I've been using Pages a lot throughout the last 2 years I've been using a Mac, and the amount of issues I had with it is honestly frustrating. Tables is one of the big issues still, and I'd love for that to finally be fixed, because again this is an application that I'll possibly be using within my work, so making it easier to use with VoiceOver would be very nice.

Submitted by splyt on Wednesday, June 8, 2016

I do not like windows at all.

I likke mac OS.
I want to miigrate my work to mac OS.
If i were sighted I could.
But as I am blind I can not.
Because Apple is not been able to provide me a fully productive environment, as accessibility is downgrading and even if it were not apple will not open voiceover for serious scripting.
We need, can and do know the way of making vo a serious productive screen reader but we can not because of Apple's policy.
As a result I have to keep windows around to do productive work. I would not care that much if there was a way of developping iOS apps out of Mac, but there's not so I have to be productive on an environment on which I definitely can not be as productive as I need.

Mac OS s a great system and voiceover could bery well let us enjoy it in a full extent. But this is not likely to happen anyy time in a short period based on historical evidence ...

Submitted by Nicholas Parsons on Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Absolutely agree, at least with the first four points. It boggles my mind when I hear VoiceOver users talking about looking forward to some trivial new feature like better sound effects or Siri, when there are so many fundamental things that could be improved.

Sadly, I don't think we'll get our way. OS X 12, or whatever it's called, will be all about a pretty new interface and some flashy new features, not about addressing the existing short comings in VoiceOver accessibility, as the latter don't make good announcables. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure some of the new features will be great, but I'd happily trade them for these VoiceOver improvements. That's if I can't have both.

Although perhaps we might have some hope if this article becomes compulsory reading for all in the Mac accessibility sector. If I could like it I'd do so a thousand times.

Submitted by dvdmth on Thursday, June 9, 2016

In the last couple of years, Apple seems to have lost interest in the Mac platform. Although it continues to get updates, the quality has gone downhill substantially in my opinion. I still love my Mac and use it somewhat frequently, but I am worried about the direction Apple is headed with it.

I have heard multiple stories of long-time Mac users switching to another platform, either Windows, Linux, or even a Chromebook, because Apple has left them behind, and they can do everything they need to do more easily and efficiently using something other than the Mac. This is a complete reversal of what it used to be several years ago, when the Mac was often the best choice for various kinds of applications.

I think it's a shame, and I hope Apple wakes up to the need to pay more attention to their computer platform. I know they have many more iOS users, and it makes sense to play to your audience and spend more time with that platform, but please don't forget about the Mac. Many of us still use it and would like to continue doing so, if we can.

Regarding VoiceOver, my experience is that the screen reader is nowhere near as reliable as it was under Mavericks. It took a major step backwards in Yosemite, and another step backwards in El Capitan, with only a few signs of efforts to fix ongoing issues. I don't expect everything to be addressed overnight, but the number of fixed bugs on the Mac is much smaller than the number of bugs fixed on iOS, even though both platforms had their fair share of issues with Yosemite and iOS 8.

Submitted by brandon armstrong on Sunday, June 12, 2016

hi all, some have said that voiceover on the mac has gone downhill, and while I agree with this one hundred percent, the same can be said about iPhone as well. Sometimes I truly believe that apple is treating the iphone like the red headed step child that no one wants, and not paying attention to fixing bugs in iOS as well. for example, I've told them over and over and over sense the release of iOS nine about a heading issue, and to this day it's not fixed. I'm going to blame tim cook for the outstanding issues on mac and iOS, because he got rid of scott forestall, the best VP in IOS software developement ever. ever sense johny slow down ive came in via iOS seven it's crawled, and has not sped up sense. I would like for everyone to go to apple on mass and say this stuff that we're saying here on the blog, and hold them accountable, and tell them the lack of fixing things is not acceptable.

Submitted by kevinchao89 on Saturday, June 18, 2016

1. I absolutely agree to all that this forum has to to say regarding the areas that could be improved and are long overdue.
2. I've been testing and using macOS Sierra with VoiceOver, but have unfortunately found that most of the items reported here are true and present.
3. Siri has opt-in keyboard shortcut of FN+SPACEBAR (or, customize your own) and can enable VoiceOver.
4. Hopefully, later developer previews will address the VoiceOver feedback reported here...

Submitted by Robert Spangler on Saturday, July 2, 2016

I spent 6 months on a Mac during the last year of 2013 and was less than impressed. I used it during a semester in grad school, so I definitely put the productivity side of things to some hard-core use.

The bugs and other issues that I experienced with VoiceOver on the Mac were so ridiculous and laughable that I just couldn't take any more and sold the thing. In this post, you highlight a few of them--primarily responsiveness, issues when editing documents and web browsing problems. The web stuff is challenging; the web environment is constantly changing and even Windows screen readers are not yet equipped to handle modern web applications in the most efficient manner. I find it difficult, however, to find an excuse for the lack of performance while editing documents. I was experiencing these issues back in 2013 and to read that they are still occurring in 2016 is truly sad. These issues are being ignored by Apple/the VoiceOver team--what else could it be? Either that or there are issues at the core of the operating system that the company does not want to fix.

My experience with using the Mac for entertainment--podcasts, music, etc--was pretty rewarding but, at the end of the day, My computer is also a productivity device. MacOS unfortunately did not shine in this area, so back to good old, reliable Windows it was for me. The mac has distinct advantages, one of which is that recovery and computer maintenance always support the use of VoiceOver, so I hope that Apple gives VoiceOver the attention it truly needs and deserves.