The New Features, Changes, Improvements, and Bugs in macOS 11 Big Sur for Blind and Low Vision Users

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Apple has today released macOS 11 Big Sur to the public. As usual, we won’t cover the mainstream features here, concentrating instead on what's new and changed for blind and low vision users. For an overview of the mainstream changes, we recommend that you read this in-depth review by MacStories.

Please remember to check the section about bugs to see if now is the right time to upgrade. There’s no harm in holding off a few weeks or months to let Apple address a problem you may find too disruptive to deal with.

A note to braille users: the AppleVis team members doing testing with Big Sur are not heavy braille users. We have no information as to how well braille works in this release, so please keep this in mind when upgrading. If you are a braille user and have any experience with macOS Big Sur and braille, please do post your findings in the comments.

Changes for Blind and Low Vision Users

Last year there were some interesting–and potentially powerful–enhancements for blind and low vision users to VoiceOver and Zoom in macOS Catalina. This year, macOS Big Sur brings fewer changes and a handful of bug fixes.

VoiceOver Recognition

Similar to iOS and iPadOS, Apple has brought its improved image descriptions to macOS. As in iOS and iPadOS, images are now described in full sentences and aim to offer more helpful information. However, unlike iOS and iPadOS, Screen Recognition does not appear to be available in macOS Big Sur.

Increased prominence of the VoiceOver Actions menu

In iOS and iPadOS, many custom actions for controls can be performed using the Actions rotor. Although the Actions menu, accessed by pressing VO-Command-Space, was introduced to macOS in 2013, it has not caught on like its mobile sibling, until now. In macOS Big Sur, VoiceOver will now announce that certain controls in apps and the OS have "Actions available." In apps ported from iOS and iPadOS, like the revamped Messages app, these actions are the same ones found in the Actions rotor on those platforms. If you'd rather VoiceOver didn't announce when custom actions are available, you can turn this off in VoiceOver Utility > Verbosity >Hints. While the functionality remains the same, VoiceOver will no-longer announce when an item has custom actions available.

Improvements for Low Vision Users

While it's not something that we have been able to test, Apple appears to have added the ability to change the size of the menu bar in System Preferences > Accessibility. As we do not have any low vision Mac users on our team, however, we are unable to comment on the precise utility of this feature.

If you are a low vision Mac user, we would love to hear in the comments your experience and thoughts on any enhancements you encounter in macOS Big Sur.

Other Changes

  • macOS Big Sur introduces a Control Center to the Mac, similar to that on iOS and iPadOS. This can be customized to Add controls for the apps and features you use most, like Accessibility. This can be accessed by pressing VO-Shift-O, or from the menu extras, and our testing indicates it is fully accessible with VoiceOver. Of note, Control Center on macOS does not seem to be a replacement of the menu extras, which continues to exist and work as expected.
  • macOS Big Sur replaces some of the classic Mac VoiceOver behaviors with sounds that iOS and iPadOS users have come to know. For example, when you activate a button or other interface element, VoiceOver will now play the iOS-style "Double-tap" sound instead of saying the word "press." Previously, this behavior occurred in apps ported from iOS and iPadOS, but has now been extended to the whole system. In addition, whenever a new dialog appears, VoiceOver will play the same tones as it does on iOS and iPadOS when an alert that covers the entire screen appears. If you'd rather this sound didn't play, it can be turned off in VoiceOver Utility > Verbosity > Announcements.
  • You can now access the Notification Center from anywhere by pressing VO-O.
  • Apple appears to have changed the keyboard shortcut used to dictate text; it now involves pressing the Control key twice. Previously, the dictation shortcut involved pressing the Function key twice, and two rapid presses of the Control key as part of the VoiceOver modifier could potentially conflict with dictation. Therefore, you may wish to change the shortcut back to the Function key or other available key. To do this, open System Preferences > Keyboard, select the dictation tab, and select an alternative from the shortcut popup menu.

Change List

In its support documentation, Apple lists the following changes for VoiceOver users in macOS Big Sur:

  • You can open Notification Centre by pressing VO-O.
  • In the new VoiceOver Recognition category in VoiceOver Utility, you can enable VoiceOver to describe images in apps and on websites using on-device intelligence to improve accessibility. To hear the description, press VO-Shift-L when the VoiceOver cursor is on an image in an app or on a website.
  • In the Announcements pane of the Verbosity category in VoiceOver Utility, you can set an option to have VoiceOver announce when system dialogues are displayed on the screen. You can navigate to open system dialogues using the Window Chooser.
  • In the Translation pane of the Braille category in VoiceOver Utility, you can choose different modes for showing braille output and input mode. For example, you could show output using six dot and type input using eight dot.
  • If you use more than one language on your Mac, you can now use the rotor to quickly switch between braille tables as needed. Use the Translation pane of the Braille category in VoiceOver Utility to add tables to show in the rotor. To quickly switch tables, press VO-Command-Shift-Right Arrow or Left Arrow until you hear Braille Table.
  • When using a braille display, VoiceOver can now automatically advance to the next line when panning. You can assign the Toggle Auto Advance On or Off command to a key on your braille display. In the Layout pane of the Braille category in VoiceOver Utility, you can set an option to control how long VoiceOver waits before automatically advancing to the next line.

Bug Fixes and New Bugs for VoiceOver Users

macOS Big Sur has its share of fixes, but it also has some new problems, as do all software releases. Below are our findings:

Accessibility Bugs Resolved in macOS Big Sur

Our testing indicates that Apple has resolved the following bugs in macOS Big Sur. Let us know if we missed any; we always love adding more fixes to these articles.

New Bugs for VoiceOver Users in macOS Big Sur

Our testing suggests that macOS Big Sur has relatively few new accessibility bugs to speak of; of note, at the time of posting, we are unaware of any new bugs which we would rate as serious.

Below are the Big Sur-specific bugs we identified; if you encounter any not on this list, and which haven't been present since before macOS Big Sur, please let us know in the comments. Please also let us know if you find one of our bugs to not be a problem on your Big Sur system. Even if it’s still a bug, we can at least note that it doesn’t happen to everyone.

  • When going to System Preferences > Security & Privacy, selecting the Privacy tab, and pressing the letters A and N to jump to the "Analytics & Improvements" category in the "privacy categories" table, pressing VO-right- arrow will cause the pane to crash and you will be returned to the main System Preferences window. No other privacy categories are believed to be affected. In addition, jumping to the "Analytics & Improvements" category and using the Tab key instead of VO-right-arrow works to avoid this issue.
  • There is a slight delay between when VoiceOver focuses on an element and when the name of that element is spoken. For example, when focusing on the "Conversations" collection in Messages, VoiceOver will immediately play the expected sound, but will be relatively slow to start speaking. This issue has been observed in Messages, Podcasts, and Voice Memos.
  • In Music, VoiceOver fails to speak selections in the "Sidebar" table when navigating with the up and down arrow keys. Unlike other tables in macOS, you must interact with this table in order to navigate it with expected VoiceOver feedback.
  • In the menu extras and Control Center, the word "Wi-Fi" is mispronounced when using the Alex voice. It is pronounced correctly in other tested contexts.

In Conclusion

macOS Big Sur is a solid update that adds a few new features and enhancements for blind and low vision users. We encountered no show-stopping bugs in this version of macOS. Our recommendation is to update when you're ready. You may want to give others some time to find the bugs or other problems we missed, but we believe most users should be okay to update now.

As always, we look forward to hearing your thoughts on this update. What do you like? What do you not like? Let us know by adding a comment below.

To install macOS Big Sur, choose System Preferences from the Apple menu, click the Software Update preference pane, and click the Update Now button to begin the update process. If other updates are available, you can click "More info" to see details about them and select specific updates to install.

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Submitted by LHaile on Saturday, November 21, 2020

For the most part, I appreciate this latest update to Mac OS. However, I learned that when I use the Zoom application and enlarge my screen to the appropriate size, my preference for how large I want my screen to be is not saved when I exit Zoom. Instead, when I open Zoom a second time, the magnification size goes to 2x or something like that. Additionally, the the settings for the Zoom application appear to be a little different for their use to be an area where you can adjust the magnification within the settings area for Zoom.

Submitted by Shortleg John on Saturday, November 21, 2020

I have no hands but manage to type with my right paw (stump). I use a trackball and rely on the drag lock to move things. Since installing Big Sur the right button and the drag lock (top right button of 4) have stopped working. Irritating! I cannot re-program the Apple mouse. Any suggestions?

When in recovery mode voiceover quits when trying to do anything with partitions, I would like to roll back to Catalina. I Don’t Think many people are voicing their concerns with this issue, at least enough for Apple to wake up and pay attention

Submitted by honest nan on Monday, November 23, 2020

I can't open DocuScan Plus since I downloaded Big Sur. It gives me an error screen which doesn't tell me what the error is. I have sent a message to SeroTek and am waiting for a response.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Saturday, November 28, 2020

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

After upgrading my 2012 MacBook Pro to a 2018 refurbished Mac Mini, I'm finally able to run Big Sur. Here's a couple things I've noticed.

When zooming, VoiceOver now announces the amount of magnification. There doesn’t seem to be a way to disable this in either the VoiceOver Utility or System Preferences -> Zoom.

Maybe people with perfect eyesight can tell the new icons apart, but for me with my crappy low vision, the new Mail icon looks a lot like the unchanged Zoom app icon. They are definitely much more similar than they used to be.

The new Messages app seems to have made it more difficult to delete conversations. In the old app, with focus on the Conversations list, I used to simply hit the delete key and then confirm. Now I have to interact with the list and select the conversation, then either open the context menu, select Delete Conversation, and confirm, or open the actions menu with VO+Command+Space, select Delete, and confirm. I don't see the benefit of doing away with the keyboard shortcut.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Saturday, November 28, 2020

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

In the last comment, I mentioned there's no way to disable VoiceOver announcing the zoom level.

In OS X, I used to start VoiceOver reading with VO+A, and as it read to me, I could zoom in and out with the control key plus mouse scroll wheel. This is no longer possible with Big Sur, as any change in zoom immediately causes VoiceOver to interrupt reading and announce the zoom level.

This is a bug, In my opinion.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Saturday, November 28, 2020

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Prior to Big Sur, I used to be able to use first letter navigation to quickly jump to a specific folder in the list of folders. For example: Move focus to the list of folders, type the letters T R A, and focus jumps to the Trash folder. This is no longer possible in the Big Sur Mail app.

I can still use first letter navigation to find a mail message in a folder by typing the first few letters of the sender's name, so I'm going to assume that the intent was to have first letter navigation for the folders too. Therefore I'll call this a bug.

Submitted by Greg Wocher on Sunday, November 29, 2020

I am running Big Sur on a 2020 13 inch MacBook Pro. I am not seeing any issues when navigating by first letter in the mail app. One of my biggest issues is when I wake my Mac up from sleep, it can take nearly 10 seconds for VoiceOver to start working.

Huh. What the heck was I doing yesterday? Too much US Thanksgiving leftovers.

You're right, first letter nav works in the Mail app, both in the list of folders and list of messages.

I agree VoiceOver is sluggish to start, though my 2018 Mac Mini is not as sluggish as you describe on your 2013 MBP.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Sunday, November 29, 2020

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

To reproduce this issue, open notes, create a new note, and type the following sentence. Be sure to misspell embarrassment - use only one r, not two, and let autocorrect fix it.

That i'd already told my friend it would be my treat only compounded my embarassment.

Now use your arrow keys to review the text. VoiceOver incorrectly pauses just before the misspelled/autocorrected word, as if you accidently inserted a period or comma just before the word embarrassment.. But you didn't. So why does VoiceOver pause?

The mispronunciation gets worse if you arrow into the word embarrassment and delete and retype one of the letters. For example, delete the letter N and retype it, then listen to how VoiceOver mispronounces it.

If you cut and paste the word embarrassment, the issue goes away.

This issue occurs regardless of the VoiceOver voice (I've tried Alex and Samantha).

Apparently, the pause before (and after) a misspelled word actually occurs before and after any word not in the Mac OS dictionary. The cut and paste workaround only works if you're willing to change the word into a word that Mac OS recognizes.

If you are, for example, using VoiceOver to read the text of a science fiction manuscript, in which the author has created new, futuristic-sounding words for characters, places, and technologies, the constant pauses that occur, in some cases, multiple times per sentence, completely disrupt the flow of reading. Adding every one of the new words to the dictionary is impractical.

This bug in Big Sur is so severe that I'll have to move my manuscript review work to my old Windows 7 system and use JAWS and MS Word.