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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- It is once again possible to navigate webpages and select text with the arrow keys in Safari. This issue also appears to be resolved with the release of Safari 14.0.1 for macOS Catalina and Mojave.
- VoiceOver speech no longer ducks when both sound effects and audio ducking are enabled.
- VoiceOver focus appears more consistent when selecting custom repeat actions in the Calendar event creation dialog.
- VoiceOver now correctly reads and navigates webpages activated from links in Safari Reader.
- The "File actions" menu button in Finder's Gallery View has been replaced with a properly labeled "More" button.
- It is now possible to play an episode in Podcasts using standard VoiceOver commands.
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.
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.