The New Features, Changes, Improvements, and Bugs in macOS Catalina for Blind and Low Vision Users

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Apple has today released macOS 10.15 Catalina 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 indepth review of Catalina by Mac Stories.

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 Catalina 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 Catalina and braille, please do post your findings in the comments.

Changes for Blind and Low Vision Users

Last year there were no big changes to VoiceOver or Zoom in macOS Mojave. This is not the case with macOS Catalina, which sees the introduction of some interesting–and potentially powerful–enhancements for blind and low vision users.

Custom Punctuation

In 2017, Apple removed the "most" punctuation setting, leaving coders and those doing document editing with no good options for hearing the punctuation they needed. Catalina fixes this in a big way. Users can now create custom punctuation groups, in which each symbol can be specified. Symbols can be replaced with custom text, such as "left paren" in place of the left parenthesis; skipped by VoiceOver and sent directly to the speech synthesizer in use, to be interpreted there instead; or silently ignored altogether.

As with some other features in macOS Catalina, this new punctuation setup is similar to that in iOS 13. Better still, the two will sync. You can set up a custom group on either platform, and it should appear on all your macOS and iOS devices soon after.

Voice Control

A significant enhancement this year from Apple is a new Voice Control accessibility feature that allows users to fully control Mac, iOS, and iPadOS devices entirely with their voice.

Voice Control improves on the existing Enhanced Dictation feature by using the Siri speech recognition engine, so you get the latest advances in machine learning for audio-to-text transcription.

Highlights of Voice Control include:

  • Add custom words: whether you’re writing a biology report, filling out a legal document, or emailing about a favorite topic, you can add custom words to ensure that Voice Control recognizes the words you commonly use.
  • Rich text editing: thanks to rich text editing commands, you don’t have to rehearse before you speak. Making corrections is quick and easy. You can replace phrases by name. Try saying, “Replace I’m almost there with I just arrived.” Fine-grained selection also makes it simple to select text. Try saying, “Move up two lines. Select previous word. Capitalize that.”
  • Word and emoji suggestions: if you need to correct a word, there’s a new interface just for that. Simply ask to correct a word, and you’ll be presented with a list of suggested replacements.
  • Seamless transitions from dictation to commands: Voice Control understands contextual cues, so you can seamlessly transition between text dictation and commands. For example, say, “Happy Birthday. Press Return key,” in Messages, and Voice Control sends “Happy Birthday” — just as you intended. You can also say, “delete that,” and Voice Control knows to delete what you just typed.
  • Comprehensive app navigation: you can rely entirely on your voice to navigate an app. Comprehensive navigation is provided by navigation commands, names of accessibility labels, numbers, and grids.

All audio processing for Voice Control will take place on your device, ensuring that your personal data is kept private.

Regrettably, at this point, it does not appear that you can use Voice Control to execute VoiceOver commands in macOS Catalina.

Improvements for Low Vision Users

While it's not something that we have been able to test, Apple has stated that low vision users will be gaining some enhancements on macOS Catalina:

  • Hover Text displays high-resolution zoom of text, text fields, menu items, buttons, and more in a dedicated window. Just press the Control key when hovering over text with your cursor, and a window with zoomed text appears alongside the standard interface — helping you stay contextually aware. Text is crisply displayed in a font and color of your choice, and you can interact with buttons and type right in the zoomed window.
  • While using a second display, you can see the same screen up close and at a distance simultaneously. You can keep one monitor zoomed in and another at a standard resolution. Or keep a personal Mac zoomed in while giving a presentation.
  • Users with color vision deficiencies can adjust display colors using new color filter options. Your Mac shifts the colors onscreen, helping you easily differentiate areas of confusion. And you can turn this preference on and off through the Accessibility Options pane using Command-Option-F5.
  • A new display option lets you tint your entire screen using a color of your choice. Some users may find that certain color tints help make text easier to read.

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

Other Changes

  • In System Preferences > accessibility > display, there are now checkboxes for both ‘Invert Colors’ and ‘Classic Invert’. Selecting only the first of these will not invert photos and images; selecting both will also invert photos and images. This addresses use cases discussed in this AppleVis forum topic.
  • With macOS Catalina, Apple states that VoiceOver users can enjoy simplified keyboard navigation that requires less drilling into unique focus groups. However, we have not been able to detect any significant changes to interaction across the OS. If you notice any changes, please do let us know by posting a comment.
  • The Tab key now more simply advances through selection of elements — such as window stoplights, toolbar buttons, and scroll bars.
  • If you have multiple Apple devices, any customized preferences for how punctuation marks are spoken are now stored in iCloud, giving you a consistent experience across macOS, iPadOS, and iOS. This is configured by going to System Preferences > Apple ID > iCloud, and clicking the, "Options," button next to the iCloud Drive checkbox. Something that we are unsure of, is what the difference is between the “VoiceOver” and “VoiceOver Utility” checkboxes present in the resulting table. If you know or have a suggestion, please let us know by adding a comment below, and if we get further clarification, we'll be sure to update this article.
  • For blind developers, VoiceOver now reads aloud warnings, line numbers, and break points in the text editor of Xcode 11. This version of Xcode also introduces some new rotor options, accessed with vo-cmd-arrows. These include functions, warnings, errors, and more.
  • macOS Catalina adds more international braille tables and lets you quickly switch between them. This feature is similar to its iOS counterpart, so you should feel at home if you've already customized your braille tables on that platform.

Bug Fixes and New Bugs for VoiceOver Users

macOS Catalina 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 Catalina

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

  • The "New Event" dialog in Calendar is more navigable with buttons appearing more consistently. Also, pressing the Tab key to cycle between events behaves more reliably.
  • VoiceOver is now more responsive when using Activities with Nuance voices.
  • VoiceOver no longer seems to skip over entire blocks of text when using the, "Read all" command. Typically, this would happen when reading webpage articles in Safari.
  • When pressing Command Shift D to send a message in Mail, VoiceOver now correctly speaks the action as, "Send."
  • When going back a page in Safari, VoiceOver more consistently returns to the same point.
  • When navigating a webpage in Safari Reader, there is no longer a vertical scrollbar, and if you have curser wrapping disabled, pressing VO Left Arrow will, as expected, not wrap around to the bottom of the page.
  • VoiceOver no longer announces, "System Preferences has new window" when navigating certain preference panes.
  • VoiceOver should no longer occasionally behave as though it were disabled when interacting with the Touch Bar on certain Macs
  • the address bar in Safari should behave better, with VoiceOver no longer announcing incorrect characters when you delete text.

New Bugs for VoiceOver Users in macOS Catalina

Unlike iOS 13, our testing suggests that macOS Catalina has relatively few new accessibility bugs to speak of; of note, we found no serious bugs in our testing. Below are the Catalina-specific bugs we identified; if you encounter any not on this list, and which haven't been present since before macOS 10.15 Catalina, 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 Catalina system. Even if it’s still a bug, we can at least note that it doesn’t happen to everyone.

  • The only way to play an episode in the new Podcasts app is to focus on it, route the mouse pointer to it with VO Command F5, or VO Command Function 5 if you're using a Mac with a Touch Bar, and clicking the mouse, either by pressing the button or with VO Shift Space.
  • If you have Voice Control enabled, VoiceOver may announce "Dictation has new window" when navigating popup menus throughout the system. It is not clear exactly what the purpose of this window is.

In Conclusion

macOS Catalina is a solid update that adds some good 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 10.15 Catalina, choose System Preferences from the Apple menu, then click the Software Update preference pane to check for updates. If any updates are available, click the Update Now button to install them. Or click ”More info” to see details about each update and select specific updates to install.

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43 Comments

#1 Sidecar

Any experience with voiceover and sidecar as in using an iPad as a secondary screen?

#2 insertion point between…

Supposing i'm the only one at all that's been geting this issue since the second or 3rd build of this software here:
When reading any web area, Voiceover always includes info about some insertion point, even in some cases interrupting the flow of group item reading to point out that some insertion point is between the characters null and G for example. This happening has made any web area much less a joy to go through on mac OS as a whole, even occasionally in mail.

#3 An Extra WArning

I think it's also important that people know that the classic view for Mail has been removed.

#4 Apple scripts with voiceover

Hi,

Just a note, apple scripts don't seem to behave quite right with voiceover in 10.15. For this reason I've downgraded until they get that sorted.

O

#5 siri voices

The Siri voices are now usable with voiceover. However, the last time I tested them, they were very glitchy.

#6 Pretty good update overall

This update is very nice indeed. I'm really happy with a lot of the small refinements in this version, and voiceover seems to be much much more responsive for me. It's a shame about the Siri voices, but that info was actually removed from Apple's website earlier on before the final release, so I don't think they're ready just yet. I would not use them for now, but I'm sure they'll be fixed in time. Definitely much better than iOS 13 on day one, but even that wasn't horrible.

#7 So Far So Good Here

I just updated my Mac after my sister and her tutor called me to say they beat me to it. Lol but anyway, the update took a long time over spotty wi-fi but all is well over here. I did notice the Siri voices and switched to a British-English male, but noticed that he started and stopped a lot. So I'm back on Bruce for now and will see what happens. I also noticed some of the iOS apps listed here.

#8 Yes, they are still very much

Yes, they are still very much glitchy. Also, choosing the Siri voices as the Mac's system voice is very unreliable. It never worked for me when I tried it during the beta period.

#9 Disappointing

While this update adds some cool new features, I'm extremely disappointed the Nuance voices still! lag! This is beyond ridiculous! They broke something in Mavericks, and 6 years later they still haven't fixed it? Really? Why is that the same voices on iOS devices that are less powerful than some of these Macs have no issues in terms of responsiveness?

The Siri voices, while nice, are not practical to use with VoiceOver. They lag just like the rest of the Nuance voices and extremely disturbingly, they can't seem to keep up with the screen reader. I'm experiencing random cutoffs and periods where the voice says things I did a few seconds ago. This makes navigation impossible and would not be acceptable if something like this with this lack of quality control was released to the sighted. You'd better believe Apple would have this fixed pronto!

On the plus side, VoiceOver is definitely more responsive if you're using a voice like Alex, and there are some new Braille features that are kind of cool. In particular, I like that we can finally disable the feature that listed multiple items on the same line. Having said those goods things, however, I really don't understand this.
1. If Apple has blind people working for them, is this stuff tested? It appears the answer is no, as these Siri voice issues have been around for a few months.
2. Why is Apple improving parts of VoiceOver and neglecting other aspects, particularly ones that have existed for over half a decade?

I really don't know anymore. It is truly sad that VoiceOver and the whole system are being neglected like this. I still say the best version of VoiceOver was probably in Snow Leopard. The experience was rock solid! That was the version of macOS that really made me love the platform and the future possibilities VoiceOver could bring. Oh well, it looks like those days are gone, and my patience with Apple is as well.

Maybe they don't care because macOS will be phased out soon anyway. I wouldn't be surprised if they released a Mac powered by an ARM processor running iPad OS within the next 1-2 years.

#10 Mac OS 10.15

While I haven't time to extensively try out the new features, I have noticed that in PDFs, using Samantha, VO pronounces parts of words when reading. For example, in the sentence read the files displayed here, VO will say: read the fil es here. Has anyone noticed this?

#11 Hey Chris, I definitely agree

Hey Chris, I definitely agree with you on a lot of your points. I think part of it is that Apple is rushing releases and not giving them time to fully develop. Just look at iOS 13 for a good example of this. I didn't have too many issues with 13 personally, but I know a lot of people have had problems with it. I would say this year, MacOS is definitely more solid than in previous years, but I totally understand your frustration, especially with voices and the state of text to speech on macOS in general recently. Nuance have released several updates to vocalizer in the past couple of years, but on macOS at least, I don't believe Apple has added many of the new voices available. On iOS there are more voices than on MacOS, especially for foreign languages,, and I thought the situation would be rectified this year but apparently not. I'm pretty sure they knew that the Siri voices were buggy, because they ended up removing that feature from the Catalina product page on their website. I don't understand why they still shipped however, and it seems to me like they were not given time to remove them before getting the OS out to the general public. I don't necessarily think this is the accessibility teams fault. I put the blame squarely on management, and I really think something needs to change there because this is unacceptable in 2019. I honestly think if they just slow things down a little, maybe move to every two years instead of one, things would work out much better. I must say though aside from the Siri voices, this is probably one of the smoothest updates I've experienced from Apple for macOS at least. Voiceover seems to be a little more polished, and while not everything is fixed, they seemed to have made progress in resolving a couple annoying bugs, especially in Safari. They definitely still have some work to do, but I think they're slowly starting to get that things really need to change for accessibility on Mac.

#12 sluggish?

Is anyone else having problems with sluggishness on first boot?

#13 Braille

One particular feature which i think is worth mentioning is the ability to switch between single or multiple elements in the Vo utility. If you choose to display a single element in the braille line, exactly as you do on iOS, you have your dots 7 and 8 back, as they are not needed to display the vo cursor. This comes particularly in handy in those places like articles in safari, where a big line of dots 7 and 8 would be drawn under the whole text of the article, as it was seen by VO as being a single block of text.

#14 Mail change?

What actual views do we have in Mail now?

#15 Apps outside of App Store

All the apps that I had purchased from outside the App Store, are now of a sudden stop working after I upgraded to macOS Catalina. Even my VPN app. Because of Apple new requirements that they want all the app developers to put their apps in the Store, which, will cost each app developer $99 a year. Glad I have Mojave backed up still, so that I can roll back to it anytime. I don't know how long I can deal with this. I think it won't be long though.

#16 Echo Chris and Zach

Not much more to add. It really is very frustrating the way that macOS is getting repurposed as a sideshow accessory to iOS while it stagnates from lack of care and attention to the experience. I have no objection in principle to macOS being rarified for the small form factor and the everyman, even to iPad apps or the new security features if implemented correctly (so, not in this case), just as long as traditional users remain accommodated and the bugs are actually being squashed. If Apple can't bring itself to love the platform it built, it should hand it over to somebody who will.

Honestly though, not only is Catalina not all bad, but the alternative is Windows 10 and the hideous privacy nightmare that it represents. So, really, it's just a question of whether one wishes to be in the frying pan or the fire. :)

@Socheat: no idea what's going down there; you should be able to run notarised apps from outside the App Store just fine. Go to System Preferences, Security and make sure you are set to run from outside the app store. After running an app, an option should appear to add an exception if one is needed.

#17 VoiceOver annoyance in Safari.

Hello! One thing that wasn't present in Mojave but has become a bit of an annoyance for me in Safari is that within every heading Voiceover says Insertionpoint at x and x. Which means it sees the heading as a textfield. To explain further, lets say the headings name is New bugs in Catalina and I go to that heading, Voiceover will say: New bug in Catalina Insertionpoint between c and a. That's just an example. But it is very very annoying. I am a beta tester so this might be something I only find in the beta. But since I have the Goldmaster installed I guess its still present in the sharp version to.

#18 Hi! Yes I have been reporting

Hi! Yes I have been reporting this to Apple but its not fixed yet. And I get really frustrated when hearing this every time.

#19 I have notice it too

I have noticed it too especially when using the American sorry emailfemaill voice

#20 Possible Clock Bug?

Anyone else notice that when checking the time and date with Right Option-T, there is a noticeable lag and the time is repeated continuously until you initiate the command again? Haven't had time yet to test this extensively,. Other than that, so far so good. Currently using Aaron as my VO voice. He's doing pretty well. Perhaps these voices haven't quite adjusted to their new surroundings, lol! But give 'em time and it'll all be good.

#21 @Sebby

I did so, but it doesn't work. It just hang in there. I can see it open in the dock, but the app window is not visible at all. Might have to look into it again. If it doesn't work, well, revert back is my last resort.

#22 time bug

yes, I have also noticed considerable lag when using option plus T for date/time, definitely not working properly

#23 Downgraded

After upgrading, I quickly downgraded. VO stuttered, skipped, and repeated words while reading. Not worth any new features at the moment.
I also dealt with insertion point between. This is an annoying bug which is also sometimes experienced on iOS.
Not going to bitch, but disappointed with accessibility on new rollouts. Very frustrating!

#24 App problems.

The problems people are having with older apps could be that the apps are not 64 bit apps. The new O. S. will not support older 32 bit apps. Check to see if there are updates to your older apps before you upgrade.

#25 Apps

Before upgrading, I have checked and verified all the requirements. The app I was using are all 64 bit apps.

To those who having problems with the time with Apple's script, I don't seems to have any problems with it at all. VO speaks right away after I pressed right option t.

#26 HotSpots

Hi all,

In Safari, If you create a HotSpot (VO-Shift 1 to 0), and then when you refresh the page, the HotSpot you created no longer exist.

Has anyone experience this tOO?

Thanks!
Jhon

#27 AppleScript: Time

Also, I also experience the delay in Time and Announcements when I press Right-Option T.

#28 Sadly: no auto language switcher for voiceover!

The auto language switcher on iOS mini years ago; but on macOS no! The multi language users is growing up, and I give up to give feedback to Apple… what I should do? go to popular website and try to make him write about Auto language switcher.
For me it’s not one year it’s six year…

#29 Using multiple Braille Tables on OS 10.15

Hello all,
Just updated my Mac OS today morning. I am impressed with the overall performance and responsiveness VO demonstrated so far.
I am fascinated with the ability to select multiple Braille Tables (if I am not missing something here).
I tried to select multiple Braille Tables but I cannot seem to switch my Braille Tables at will.
For instance, if I open a website featuring a different language than the default English (UK), my Braille Display shows gibberish.
Is there a way to add multiple Braille Tables and allow VO to change it to appropriate Braille table based on the displayed language?
Also, where do I find rotor settings on Mac, or are there none I can customise?
Thank you and have a good day!

#30 invert and smart invert, encountering same behaviour, help!

hello all,
apologies for the immediate next comment.
I realise that on MacOS 10.15, smart invert colours seems to be smarter than the previous versions of MacOs.
However, when I am trying to invoke smart invert colours, my entire Mac screen inverts its colour, (including desktop wallpaperrs and photos/vidios etc).
I thought smart invert is able to differentiate between photos/images/vidios and other text/page background and display appropriate colours on the screen.
Is anyone having the same issue as I am having? I am about to drop an email to apple accessibility team. Before that, I would like to know whether this is a bug or an expected behaviour of smart invert to save me and accessibility team some grief.
Thank you once again and have a good day all!

#31 Re: AppleScript: Time

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

I have an older mid-2012 MacBook Pro with an HDD. I, too, experienced the big delay with Right Option + T before announcing the time. However, after upgrading the hard disk to an SSD, the time is announced more promptly. There's still a delay, it's just not as noticeable.

If the delay is a serious issue for you, take a look at this article:
https://www.applevis.com/guides/making-voiceover-announce-time-and-date-...

#32 mouse pointer jumps around with both Zoom and Voice Over on

I have found that the mouse pointer jumps either to the top area or the bottom area of the screen when you use the mouse pointer to navigate the text with voiceover, something I have always done with great success. It is very disruptive as i use the mouse pointer to indicate which text must be read out by Voice Over and when the pointer jumps it reads out the text it lands on, no longer reading the paragraph or sentence i was busy reading.

#33 Music app problem

When you go to an album in Music, it only reads out the first ten songs when there are more tracks on the record. I called Apple support about this and the solution we found was to scroll down using the arrow keys by themselves. VO only reads out ten songs. This is rather strange - a brief google reveals people have had this problem in various forms since 2015.

#34 Zoom issue tracking text cursor in Terminal/iTem2

After upgrading to Catalina, my text cursor is not tracked in fullscreen Zoom.
Getting the same issue in Safari and MS Outlook too.

Most of my work is with iTem2, do anyone know of a workaround?

#35 Re: Music App Problem

I also have been encountering this problem, I hope they will fix it but I don't think they care about Mac OS like in Maverix or Yosemite.

#36 Preview no longer busy with longer pdf files

Hello I have just made the upgrade. In previous versions of Mac OS I had the problem, that preview in combination with voiceover was always very busy when opening and trying to read long pdf files. This problem seems to have been solved. I tried two long pdf files with over 200 pages and it worked.

#37 Re: PDFs

I realised it to and it's great. But Continues reading still is not working.
But Books App also is better now, VoiceOver doesn't jump when it encounters with a empty line or a picture and it reads all the pages properly.

#38 Safari Annoyance with headings

Anders, I was having the same problem with VO announcing "insertion point" info on headings in Safari. I found that if I change verbosity level from low to medium or high, the issue goes away. Give it a try, if you haven't already found this out.

#39 Pop-up in Saffari

When I go into Safari, a pop-up window appears. Voice Over reads: "Application window dialogue. You are currently on a dialogue." If I move focus away from Safari and then come back to Safari, I can navigate the screen until the "Application window" pops up again. I cannot close this window and there does not appear to be any controls within the window.

This happens every time I go into Safari since I upgraded to Catalina.

#40 Voiceover stops speaking

Club AppleVis Member

I noticed that voiceover will stop speaking from time to time. Voiceover is still running but the speech becomes muted. The only way I know to fix this is to turn off voiceover and then turn it back on. Has anyone else experienced this bug? I am using a 2013 MacBook Aire

#41 books very much usable

Club AppleVis Member

The Books app is very much usable in macOS Catalina. I seriously hope the Applevis team does a bit more investigating of macOS in the future, or that Apple kind of gives us a lot more info on accessibility as there doesn't seem to be that many Mac users on teams like the Applevis one.
Back to the better stuff, I can now read books for long stretches of time, even longer if my chair were more comfortable, lol, on the Mac in the Books app. It doesn't have a "now reading" section like iOS which I've come to love, but I can find a book and begin reading just fine. I can even have Voiceover announce formatting changes, great for students reading textbooks where vocabulary terms in text are bolded and such. For more general changes it's still good to have text attributes sounded rather than hearing all the exact information. The only change from Books in iOS is that, since Voiceover doesn't have a "page turn" sound, the page is announced when doing a "read all" and Voiceover advances pages.

So, even with the Safari annoyance, and the braille problems, and the time problems, as a reader, I updated for the Books accessibility alone, which I found in an early beta on an older MacBook.

#42 Regarding Crashing Speech

To the person experiencing constant speech crashes, those happened to me all the time not long after I got this Mac. It is also a 2013 MBA, but I haven't experienced any speech crashes for awhile now. I don't know whether it was Apple's new file management thing that fixed the problem, or the purchase of my external hard drive, or both or neither of these. In any case, it's all good on my end.

#43 Using Braille with Books app

Hi all,
I agree that books app has become more accessible and responsive than what it was in the previous versions of Mac OS. All in all, it is a much anticipated and welcome change.
For some strange reason, though, I am unable to use my Braille Display with Books app. Once I am in a book and after interacting with the text of the current book, my Braille Display refuses to pan.
Consequently, I am stuck at the current line or a text element. No amount of pressing the pan keys budges the focus of my Braille Display to previous or next line or text element.
Am I missing something here? Any thoughts or suggestions?
Thank you and have a good day all!