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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The Safari download bug is actually a new Safari/MacOS security feature. There should be a dialog box that appears asking if you wish to download from ''. The bug, for lack of a better description, is that VoiceOver does not always focus on this, which can be frustrating.
My only advise at the moment is to refresh the page (Command+'R') and try again.


Submitted by Darrell Bowles on Sunday, October 20, 2019

Hello to all,
Let me first say that I love the work that apple vis does, and how it keeps us connected as a community. With that being said, I want to discuss a comment that someone mentioned about how terrible windows 10 is as it relates to privacy.
While I'm not going to touch on the privacy aspect, I will say this: I read the blog post, and while there are two new features one for voice control, and one for voice over users regarding punctuation, This lack of VoiceOver support is why I no longer have a mac. Even Microsoft Narrator has less issues, and believe it or not, continues to be worked on. The last major changes to Voice Over were in Mac OS Mountain lion, and that was almost a decade ago. They are just now letting you guys customize punctuation, but yet the ability to write apple scripts is broken. It really makes me wonder what will become of Macs in about another 10 years.
Bugs are not getting fixed, and

Submitted by Brian on Sunday, October 20, 2019

By "writing to Apple scripts is broken", do you mean the Keyboard commander issue? Applescript is working fine, at least in my experience. As for the commander issue, I am pretty sure that is related tot he new voices introduced in Catalina. That has a few work arounds for, but overall Applescript works just fine.
Also, what does owning and operating a Mac have to do with Microsoft privacy infringement?
Just seeking clarification...

Submitted by Boxer1 on Sunday, October 20, 2019

Thanks for the help on the Safari downloading bug. I managed to get voiceover to focus on The dialogue and allowed the download.

Submitted by Scott Field on Monday, October 21, 2019

In reply to by Dan Lococo

i too get this irritating issue. I am partially sighted and use zoom and VO together. i can say that although VO sounds like a dialogue box appears, visually there is actually no dialogue box. I reported this to apple and got a number of responses from them saying they were unable to recreate the issue.

Submitted by Bruce Harrell on Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Until updating to macOS Catalina, I simply pressed right option t to get the date and time. That's the way I set it up in keyboard commander. Now that I've updated to Catalina, however, right option t no longer gives me date and time, except on occasion.

Submitted by Kelly S on Thursday, October 31, 2019

Ever since I updated, I have had major accessibility issues on Safari. For some reason when I navigate by heading it only tells me the link/website instead of the name of the link I’m on. The only way to see what the search results are is to use the headings menu. It’s extremely frustrating and inconvenient.

Submitted by Kelly S on Thursday, October 31, 2019

Another major issue I’ve encountered is VoiceOver will randomly stop working. For example, it will either stop reading altogether or will not read everything in a list or pop up menu. The only remedy for this is to turn VoiceOver off and on again.

Also, it no longer reads the results for a spotlight search.

Another buggy menu is the sidebar in Music. For example, it sometimes won’t tell me the name of the playlist I have selected. I never had any problems like this until they got rid of iTunes. Music as a whole is pretty buggy and difficult to navigate.

My last complaint is an issue with the Notes app. This was a problem before the update, but it got worse. First, quick nav randomly turns on and screws with your navigation and typing. I often have to turn VoiceOver off and on again to get that to work properly. Also, VoiceOver will randomly describe the font or text while reading or editing a note or document. This distracts from the content in a negative way.

I really hope these issues get remedied soon.

Submitted by Oliver Kennett on Thursday, October 31, 2019

Just to add my voice to the apple scripts and keyboard commander. It still doesn't work which is frustrating as I reported the problem a month ago and was hoping for it to be rectified in 15.1. I've sent apple accessibility another email. I'd urge any others who find this an annoyance to do the same:

Submitted by Sebby on Sunday, November 3, 2019

You're absolutely right. The way Apple triages accessibility bugs is completely messed up, for lack of more expletive-laden language. One can only assume that iOS comes before macOS, and that iOS is being fattened up because of some specific requirements, perhaps in education. The QA on both is absolutely terrible, but at least iOS is getting fixed, albeit painfully slowly and without regard for the experience of disabled customers using production software, and still sees new features with each release.

I am, believe it or not, never far from the latest Windows 10 builds. That doesn't, IMO, change for me the unfortunate reality that Microsoft have done an about-turn on privacy, and now treat their customers personal privacy with contempt. You're forced into submission of telemetry, and you're forced to swallow the updates that enterprise customers won't swallow until they've been tested by Microsoft's unpaid beta testers, i.e. the consumers of non-enterprise builds. Trust me, the fact that Windows 10 is at least fixable with enough third-party sticking plaster, up to a point, is something I'm very, very aware of, and I am really very tempted to surrender to it, and I may yet do so. But I do have principles too, and until I've figured out a foolproof way of stopping Windows from spying on me and decided whether 18 months is long enough to sustain a Windows installation, I'm going to be very hard-pressed to switch. And then of course there's the momentum of switching from a platform that, for all its faults, I do still love for its positive features. It's a horrible parody of my journey to the Mac, in 2008, when I made the exact opposite switch. I may even pick up a KVM, so I can use a Mac Mini to transition back using a Windows keyboard and screen. It'll be a kind of surreal reverse acid trip, you know, but living the nightmare in reverse ...

Anyway, you guys will be the first to hear of it. :)

Submitted by Gary Price on Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hi all.
I've noticed a possible serious bug with VoiceOver in Catalina.
When typing text into messages for example, if you make a mistake and need to delete it, VoiceOver is saying absolutely nothing when pressing the backspace key.
It was absolutely fine before in Mojave.
Has anyone on here noticed this as well?
Is Apple aware?
Is there a workaround?
Thanks, look forward to any responses.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

In reply to by Becca

I tried the Samantha voice but didn't hear a problem with the word "files".

I use the Allison voice, and it mispronounces both "gun" and the male name "stu". It seems to spell both out, so I hear G-U-N and S-T-U.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

In reply to by Bruce Harrell

The right alt T keyboard commander shortcut to read the current time is just an AppleScript under the hood, and AppleScript in general has issues in Catalina. I have discovered that VO+m followed by escape, for some reasons, causes stalled AppleScripts to complete. You might have to do this multiple times. So, for example, try right alt T followed by VO+M, escape, and VO+M again. This works for me.

Submitted by Daniel Angus MacDonald on Wednesday, January 29, 2020


this is no bug. new to macos Catalina, is a permissions dialog for file downloads. when you download a file, Catalina will ask permission to download with the URL displayed. this happens with every file download. click allow in every case and this should fix your problem.

Submitted by Kevin Shaw on Thursday, January 30, 2020

Hi. I'm on the latest version of Catalina. I'm looking for old saved episodes of my podcasts, but in the Podcasts app, I only see a few and can't scroll down the list. Is there a way around this? What's also troubling is the fact that I saved these to my local disk and I can't find them at all in Finder.

Hi Devin Praydor I enjoy reading books using my MacBook under MacOS Catalina I also found VoiceOver to be responsive

Submitted by Shaima on Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Since I updated my Mac to the Big Sur version, I have been experiencing an issue where VoiceOver keeps saying "busy" in applications like "zoom" and even waiting for a while doesn't resolve the issue. I haven't been able to use zoom with VO ever since. I think this also happens with other apps like Mail and Safari, but not as severe. Anyone having the same problem?