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.

Submitted by ro rem on Sunday, December 13, 2020

I want to talk about a bug regarding the big sur update. I have the big sur 11.0.1 update installed on my MacBook Air 2017. In the catalina version, I could add emphasis and notes to my books in ePub format with the iBooks application and this was voiced by voice over. However, he does not voice the highlights and notes I added before while reading the pages. When I turn on markup in PDF documents, the emphasis is added but the voice over is not speaking. she just voices the voice over "emphasis marked". My highlights and notes are not voiced when I focus on the text or scan the page from top to bottom. that's why I don't want to work with PDF document. With my iPhone 11 pro, I can add highlights and notes to ePub books and voice over voices all the process. I cannot add highlight and annotation to PDF documents on iPhone.

Submitted by Guyster on Sunday, January 3, 2021

Hello all, first of all, I have installed Big Sur with not too many issues. I do have one, what I will call a bug, that is a little annoying, but no showstopper. When I am in music, searching through a song list, I cannot seem to use first letter navigation there. For example, if I am in a songs table, looking for walk this Way by run-DMC, I cannot type W, A, L, as I used to be able to do in OS Catalina. Also, when I delete a song out of my library, the deletion box comes up, but voiceover does not seem to focus it. Has anyone had this problem, or any workarounds? Thanks in advance for any help.

I have definitely encountered the problem with the song deletion dialog. Try pressing VO+F2 twice quickly. This opens the window chooser, which should let you move focus to the song deletion dialog.

Submitted by Dom76 on Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Visually impaired - moved away from PC as constant updates were making my magnification software incompatible, constantly. Took a while to get used to Mac and the change has just happened!! For some reason.when toggling ZOOM on & off, it reverts to smaller magnification, not the level it was when toggled off. Very frustrating.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

When inverting colors, Big Sur briefly displays a window in the center of the screen. This has many unforeseen consequences. It takes focus away from the topmost app, then when the invert window goes away, the topmost app regains focus. This causes VoiceOver to announce the app name, which is completely unnecessary and just more noise for blind users to filter out. If you are low vision and have scrolled to a part of the app that does not contain VoiceOver focus, inverting colors has the side effect of scrolling the app back to the VoiceOver focus location, which means the user needs to scroll back to where they were. If you have zoom enabled when you invert colors, the invert window moves the zoom location so that you're no longer looking at what you had previously zoomed in on.

The invert colors window adds no benefit. I wish there was a way to disable it.

Okay, enough about the invert colors window. I guess you can tell I'm not a fan. LOL.

Has anyone else brought focus to the menubar (with VO+M or Control+F2) and then tried to switch apps with Command+Tab? Usually, VoiceOver reads the app name for each Command+Tab press. But if you have focus in the menubar, VoiceOver reads each app name as "Apple, Apple, Apple". Well, that's if your focus is on the menubar Apple icon at least.

Sorry, I just needed to rant a little after upgrading to 11.2 and still seeing really low quality accessibility in this release.

Submitted by Christopher on Thursday, April 22, 2021

I agree with what some of you have said... There are indeed some cool things which have been introduced into Big Sur, don't get me wrong, but there are some serious serious issues which are excuse my french, frustrating the shit outta me!

First, don't even begin to get me started with the Siri US English male and female voices. First, certain things are over annunciated in my opinion. For example, instead of the word option, it says it more like, auption. I almost at first thought it was saying auction! Hashtag WTF! Secondly, unless you upgraded from a previous version of Mac OS, such as Catalina, and already had the Siri US English male and female voices installed, you won't be able to speed them up nor slow them down. Oh, you can move the slider all day long. Sliders work real good for me, doo da, doo da, it ain't moovin, caint you see, all the flippen day! OK, that was stupid, LOL! but you get my point. You can tell, probably, I'm just, sow'w'w'w! impressed!... Not?

How about the nasty bug with shutting up Voiceover in certain apps with the control key not working? Great typical example of this: Mail! go to your message list, don't interact with it, maybe that's my issue, but, still! this didn't happen in Catalina and before. Anyway, now, since you're not actually interacting, just hit option up arrow, not VO+up arrow, I'm saying, option up arrow, to move to the top of the message list. Now, as it's reading the different columns of the first top most item, try shutting it up with your control key. It stops talking for all of maybe half a second, then runs its little mouth again and the only way to truly shut it up is to let it get the last word in, or VO away from the damned message list table. I love my speech, knowing what's on my screen since I'm blind and can't see it, but Jimmeny! Christmas! Shut! Up! already! There's being verbose, and there's being verbose!

Getting back to TTS stuff with the Siri US English male and female voices, I use a portable system, a cilicon Macbook Air 2020 13 inch model. It's totally up to date with 11.2.3. I went in when I first got the thing, and set the system voice to the Siri male... not to be confused with the Voiceover voice, although I did that too with the Siri Male. Anyway, I also made sure in the general category of Voiceover Utility that I had the box checked for letting Voiceover be controlled with Apple Script.

In keyboard commander, I've turned that on to the right option key, so was able to hit option+T to speak the time, which it was doing well with the Siri male voice. Well, come tonight, no updates before this happened, no settings changed, no other software installed before hand, nothing! Just totally out of the crystal clear azure blue sky, It started reverting to using Alex. Stupid idiot thing? I disabled and re-enabled Voiceover with Command+F5, and then the Siri male voice worked again with the system voice. Mind you, it never reverts back with Voiceover and always consistently gives me the Siri male voice except for one exception, but I'll get to that in a minute. So, as soon as I restarted the system, the stupid thing again reverted back to Alex. I went into system prefs, removed the siri male and female voices off my system entirely, redownloaded and reinstalled them, same behavior. And by the way, I can't speed up or slow them down there either let alone in Voiceover. The other thing is, when I rebooted, once on the screen to put in my password initially, Alex spoke, not the Siri Male voice. Again, WTF! I could kind of see because your not logged in yet so it hasn't unlocked the file system totally, but that didn't happen in Catalina, nor any other version there prior. No, I don't have on file valt, don't even go there! BTW, yes, Alex can speed up and down, so clearly this is definitely! a Siri voice issue.

I reported this to Apple, as I see from other threads up here dating all the way back to the first betas of Big Sur others have too. Apple has even told me they totally are aware of these issues, but they tell me they're normal behavior, and I just need to get used to it. Excuse me Bubba, but it's normal that I select one of those voices as the default system voice, yet it pops me back to Alex? What the heck is normal about that! Evidently, I missed Smart 1o1 but instead passed Stupidity 1o1 as I'm too dumb to understand this... ahim, pun intended definitely... logic.

I'm sorry to be so vocal about this. I love Apple for what it's worth, but I'm getting tired of this regression of accessibility as so are others apparently. I mean, where the heck are their priorities these days. What, you're gonna make a new iMac, and make it all pertty little different colors that we can show to the king? Seriously? Yeah, Mom wants a hot pink colored iMac for her BD! Really? Seriously? Who flippen cares! If it was a phone? little different story there, but an iMac? Caaam! Aaaan! In the words of Michelle Tanner from Full House: Oh, puh leez! And no, Mom doesn't really want the hot pink iMac. I was being incredibly sarcastic. But, yes, they really have released a new lineup of macs that do come in colors. Why not instead work on things that matter, like these accessibility bugs. I'm all for cosmetics, but, when people report problems with your products, yet instead of fixing them over time, you make them worse, tell people that's normal behavior, and then instead, set your priorities on making a brand spanking new system to quote: rock the world, I'm sorry, but that's where I draw the line. You all can hate me all you want for this post. I honestly don't really care either way, maybe I should, but I really at this point don't. Someone had to say it loud and proud... Apple is getting worse with Accessibility, and it's time we step up, dammit, and make our voices heard. I dono what that looks like, how we're supposed to effectively get our points across since they're clearly not listening to all we say to them of feedback. Don't even think about Maybe they do read all those comments. I don't doubt that, but do they take it seriously? Seems from my personal experience at least, anything I've said up there or written to Accessibility lately is taken as a joke! Didn't used to be that way back in the days of like, Yosemite, Mavericks, etc, maybe even Mountain Lion, but after Mountain Lion, honestly, things kind of just hit the fan and are gradually starting to go totally down hill to the kiss bucket. Kur, splatto! Signing off, a very frustrated little dude.

Submitted by Christopher on Thursday, April 22, 2021

Almost forgot... Touch ID! Unlike in iOS where it automatically speaks with Voiceover tellin you, lift your finer, place your finger, however many percents complete when setting up the finger print, on the mac, forget it! At least during the mac's initial setup, I can't speak for adding a print once already configured of a system, haven't tried, but setting up your first print during the initial setup assistant, visually it shows you to place and lift your finger from the touch ID power button, but my mom had to tell me what to do step by step, as the only way I could read to figure it out was to lift my finger, reposition my hands on the keyboard to VO around, read what to do, then put my finger back, lift it, reposition, read, re-place my finger, I mean, Good God alive! What should a taken half a minute took about 3 to 5 minutes to accomplish.