Taming the Beast: Google Docs on MacOS
You tried Google Docs. You approached it like a web page, expecting to find controls with VO+Left and VO+Right, but nothing made sense. Or you approached it like a word processor but couldn't figure out even simple things like how to open menus. Me too. It was a frustrating experience.
Take a moment with me. Let's cry and scream together and smash our fists on the keyboard. And after that's over, let's teach this beast that we will not surrender. Together, we will learn Google Docs!
I'm part of a writers group that uses Google Docs for collaboration. I've been avoiding Docs by downloading documents from Google Drive and editing locally. Everyone else in the group edits directly in Docs. If I used Docs through a web browser, I could work more efficiently without fear of overwriting a collaborators changes.
I spent a few weeks reading Google's documentation and working with Google Docs. In this blog, I share what I've learned.
Field Guide for the Beast: Documentation
Like Apple, Google's documentation is incredibly concise. For general information on Google Docs accessibility, see Accessibility for Docs editors. For information on editing Google Docs (as opposed to Google Sheets), see Edit Documents with a Screen Reader.
Choose a Weapon: Chrome versus Safari
The Google Docs documentation recommends Google Chrome. Everything described in this article works with either Chrome or Safari, except where noted. Some things are broken in Chrome, and other things are broken in Safari. There is no one best browser for Google Docs.
The first time I tried to launch Chrome after installation, nothing happened. I found an article that told me how to fix Chrome if it doesn't open.
Make the Beast Talk: Accessibility Settings
If you don't already have a Google account, create one.
To use Docs with VoiceOver, enable screen reader support for your Google account, which you can do from your account's accessibility settings. This should turn on screen reader support for any Google app you use, including Drive and Docs.
Run with the Beast: Keyboard Shortcuts
Let's start in Drive. Open http://drive.google.com. But before we try anything, let's learn about keyboard shortcuts.
Probably the biggest barrier for blind users of Drive and Docs is the dizzying array of keyboard shortcuts necessary to accomplish even the simplest tasks. Fortunately, Google provides a handy online shortcut reference system that works the same way in both Drive and Docs. Plan to spend a lot of time looking up shortcuts in these references in your first week using Drive and Docs.
Use the Drive shortcut reference now to find the shortcut for a new document. Press Command+/ to open the keyboard reference web dialog. The shortcut window contains a handy search field, which you can easily find by arrowing around. Type Document in that field, then press Enter. Arrow through the list of search results to discover that you can create a new document with Shift+T. Press Escape to close the search results, and press Escape again to close the shortcut reference and return to Google Drive.
To describe these shortcuts, this blog uses the following conventions.
- For unmodified lower-case shortcuts, I use the capital letter. For example, to open the context menu in Drive, press A. That means just press the A key, not Shift+A.
- For shortcuts that are a pair of keys, I separate them with a comma. For example, to go to the next comment in Docs, press Control+Command+N, Control+Command+C. As another example, to jump to the list of files in Drive, press G, L.
- Some shortcuts involve special keys that VoiceOver might not announce. For example, Command+Option+, opens the GSuite sidebar. Read these keys by arrowing over this blog text in your browser. Alternately, open the VoiceOver Utility, Verbosity, Text, and set Punctuation to All while you read this blog.
Lair of the Beast: Google Drive
This section describes the basics of using Google Drive.
You can't use Google Docs without Google drive. Drive provides an interface to the cloud storage that comes with your Google account. It allows you to share files with others, and access files other Drive users have shared with you. You can access Google Drive from wherever you've logged into your Google account.
If you're not already on the Drive home page, go there now.
Initially, your browser places focus on a list of files. If you're new to Drive, this list will be empty. Once you have files here, you can navigate through the list with arrow keys. Drive also provides J, K, L, and H for navigation without leaving the qwerty keyboard home row.
Press G, Q to go to the quick access control where you can arrow through a list of recent files you've accessed. As a mnemonic, G, Q stands for "go to quick access". Go back to the list of files with G, L (go to list).
Take a look at the Navigation Pane with G, N (go to navigation). Inside this control, you can view items that are shared with you, a list of recent items, and a list of items you've starred. You can also go to your Trash folder or select My Drive to return home.
To create a new document or folder, open the Create menu with the C key and navigate through it. I prefer to use other shortcuts such as Shift+T for a new Document and Shift+F for a new folder.
With focus on a file or folder, press A to open the context menu and arrow through it to see what's possible.
Use the O key to open a folder or document.
- If you open a folder, return to the parent directory with G, P (go to parent).
- If you open a Google Doc, your browser will open a new tab with the file open in the Docs editor. We'll describe that in the next section.
- If you open a file not supported by Google Docs, it will display in the Drive Previewer. Press Escape to close the Previewer and return to Drive. To force a Word document to open in the Docs editor, use the A key context menu and select Google Docs from the Open With submenu.
Backup and Sync: The MacOS Google Drive App
I played with Backup and Sync long enough to know it's not for me.
On the plus side, it provides access to Google Drive files through a normal Finder window. Unfortunately, the files are synced copies, and it doesn't provide access to items shared with me. This makes it useless for collaboration.
Backup and Sync is a bear to uninstall, because it launches at login. To delete it, open System Preferences, Users and Groups, then Login Items. Remove Backup and Sync from the list of apps that start at login, and restart your Mac. This should allow you to delete the app from your Applications folder.
Heart of the Beast: Google Docs
If you don't already have a Google Doc to play with, create one now in Drive by hitting Shift+T. This creates an untitled document in the current Drive folder and opens it in the Docs editor.
Accessing the Menus
Before you do anything else, learn how to open the menus.
The menu shortcut is Control+Option+ the first letter of the menu (except O for Format). Unfortunately, these shortcuts conflict with VoiceOver. Use VO+tab to work around this. For example, to open the Tools menu, press VO+tab, Control+Option+T. If you don't hear the Tools menu open, press Escape, then open it again.
With the Tools menu open, check to make sure screen reader support is enabled. Arrow through the menu to Accessibility and press Enter. Find the checkbox for screen reader support and ensure it's selected. Find and select the OK button to close the Accessibility Settings window.
If you can't arrow through the menus, it's probably because you have Mouse Pointer set to Follows VoiceOver Cursor. To fix this, go to VoiceOver Utility, Navigation, and set Mouse Pointer to Ignores VoiceOver Cursor.
Interacting with Document Text
According to Google's documentation, press VO+Shift+Down to interact with document text. In my experience, this doesn't work reliably. Google Docs is a web app, and it's inherently sluggish — sometimes a little patience works miracles. Other times, it needs a kick. If VO+Shift+Down doesn't allow you to interact with the document text, try the following.
- Press Escape, then VO+Shift+Down again. Surprisingly, this works better with Safari than Chrome.
- Press Command+R to refresh, or close Google Docs with Command+W and reopen the document.
- With Chrome, you can find the text control with the Item Chooser (VO+I). It's called Document Content. With focus on the text control, press VO+Shift+Down.
You shouldn't need to sacrifice a chicken during the full moon to get this to work. I've been tempted, though. Believe me.
When interacting, you can type or paste to enter new text and review what you've written with the Arrow keys. All the typical Mac text manipulation shortcuts work: cut, copy, paste, undo, select all, bold, italics, select character, select word, move to beginning of line, move to end of line, and many others.
Unfortunately, not all VO commands work.
- VO+F6 does not read selection. Docs provides an alternative: Control+Command+A, Control+Command+X.
- VO+A does not read the document. You can Command+A to select all then read the selection, but reading the selection is simply not the same as VO+A.
- VO+Command+PageUp and VO+Command+PageDown do not read the next and previous sentences.
- VO+Shift+PageUp and VO+Shift+PageDown do not read the next and previous paragraphs.
Using the Find Feature
Press Command+F to search for text. Google Docs announces the number of results matching your search. VO+Right takes you to the Next and Previous buttons. Press Escape to close the Find dialog, which leaves your text cursor at your search result.
A Document by Any Other Name
There are two ways to rename your document.
- If you're in Google Drive, arrow down to "Untitled document". Press the A key to open the context menu and select Rename.
- In Google Docs, press Option+/ to search the menus. Type Rename, then arrow down to the first search result and press Enter. The new name text field automatically populates with the first few words of your document. Use that, or specify any name you wish and press Enter.
Zoom and Low Vision Features
For low-vision users, Google Docs should work with the Zoom feature. Set Zoom to follow keyboard focus in System Preferences, Accessibility, Zoom, then Advanced. When enabled, Zoom should follow typing and the Google Docs text cursor. In my experience, this works better in Chrome thanSafari.
Sadly, Docs doesn't render the VoiceOver highlight rectangle. Many low-vision users depend on this feature.
Roar Like the Beast: Reviewing and Editing
Once you're familiar with the basics, you're ready to flex your muscles and use Google Docs word processing features like a pro.
I do a lot of collaborative reviewing with features like spell check, word count, track changes (called Suggested Edits in Docs), and comments. I also do live critiques in an online call with other writers, so I need to be able to efficiently move through a document.
Word Count (a.k.a Searching Menus)
To hear the word count, press Control+Command+A, Control+Command+W. As a mnemonic, that's "announce word count".
But suppose you didn't know that. How would you figure it out on your own? You could waste a lot of time manually searching the menus, but here are two quicker methods.
- Docs provides a way to search the menus quickly. Press Option+/ and type Word Count. Arrow down through the search results and press Enter to select. Searching menus with Option+/ comes in handy for some commands that have no shortcut, such as accepting or rejecting a Suggested Edit.
- As you already know, you can find any shortcut with the keyboard shortcut reference search field.
If you've been learning as you go, you've already searched the shortcuts and discovered that Command+Option+X runs the spelling and grammar check.
You can also move to the next and previous misspelled word with Command+' and Command+;, then select an action from the context menu with Command+Shift+\. I prefer this method, because it gives me an opportunity to review the suspected misspelling in context.
Note that Google's own documentation incorrectly states the context menu shortcut. It's Command+Shift+\, not Command+Shift+X.
Note that Apple's built-in spelling and grammar check doesn't work with Google Docs text.
Google Docs suggested edits work like MS Word Track Changes. If you download your Google Doc as a .docx MS Word file, any Suggested Edits will appear as Track Changes.
To enable Suggested Edits, press Option+/, search the menus for Suggesting, and select Suggesting Mode from the search results. To disable it, use the same method to switch back to Editing Mode.
Suggesting Mode has some significant accessibility issues. The Review Suggested Edits option on the Tools menu doesn't provide a way to review the change before you accept or reject it. Furthermore, if your text cursor is on a suggested edit, the context menu does not provide Accept Change and Reject Change options. Finally, there are no shortcuts to accept or reject a change.
To accept or reject a change, press Option+/ to search the menus for Accept or Reject. To move to the next or previous suggested edit, use Control+Command+N or P, Control+Command+U.
I use comments primarily to cue myself for the live verbal critique I deliver to the manuscript's author. I need to move quickly to each comment, hear the text, then talk about the comment, usually a question or idea related to the comment anchor text.
To add a comment, select the document text associated with the comment and press Command+Option+M. Enter the comment text. If using Google Chrome, VO+Right Arrow to the Post Comment button and select it. This doesn't work in Safari. For some reason, I have to enter the comment text with Control+Command+E, Control+Command+C, and poke around inside the comment window controls to find the Post Comment button.
After selecting Post Comment, the selected manuscript text becomes the anchor text for that comment. You can read the anchor text with Control+Command+A, Control+Command+A, and you can read the Comment text with Control+Command+A, Control+Command+C.
To move to the next or previous comment, use Control+Command+N or P, Control+Command+C.
Crazy Comment Keystroke Customizations
During my critique, I need to quickly move to the next comment and read the comment text. The shortcuts (and I use the word "short" liberally) are Control+Command+N, Control+Command+C to go to the next comment, then Control+Command+A, Control+Command+C to read that comment text. Did you hear that noise? That was the sound of the Beast growling at us. Now it's time for us to growl back.
I wrote two AppleScripts to go to the next and previous comments and read the comment text. I placed them in two Automator Workflows. Finally, I associated the workflows with keyboard shortcuts in System Preferences, Keyboard, Shortcuts. This allows me to press Control+Shift+1 to go to the next comment and read it or Control+Shift+2 for the previous comment.
Here's my AppleScript to jump to and read the next comment.
tell application "Safari" to activate Delay 0.25 tell application "System Events" -- Move to next comment, cntl+com+N, cntl+com+C key code 45 using [control down, command down] key code 8 using [control down, command down] Delay 0.25 -- Read comment text, cntl+com+A, cntl+com+C key code 0 using [control down, command down] key code 8 using [control down, command down] end tell
As written, the script works with Safari. If you'd rather use Chrome, change the first line. Because I'm using this during a live presentation, speed is of the essence. In my experience, Chrome is too slow because it spends time announcing the page number before reading the comment text.
I discovered something important about Applescripts that execute key codes. If you execute it from a keyboard shortcut that uses modifier keys, and you don't release them fast enough, the key codes include those modifiers. I included an initial 0.25 second delay to give me time to release all keys.
Pulling Thorns from the Beast's Paw
Here are the biggest accessibility bugs and issues Google needs to address.
- Fix interacting with document text so users won't have to repeatedly press Escape and VO+Shift+Down.
- Add support for read all, read next and previous sentence, and read next and previous paragraph. The surprising lack of support for these basic VO reading commands makes it impossible to review documents.
- Make the Review Suggested Edits tool more accessible by providing a way for blind users to know what change they are about to accept or reject.
- Make it as easy to enter comments in Safari as in Chrome.
- Render the VoiceOver highlight rectangle.
In spite of these issues, I'm able to use both Drive and Docs for my writing group work.
I Tamed the Beast
I didn't sit down and write this blog overnight. Learning Drive and Docs was a real challenge, and as a blind person, it seemed like the odds were against me. But every time I ran into a wall, I calmly got up from my chair, stepped outside, and screamed at the top of my lungs. Then I slept on it. And the next morning, I tried a different approach, or I went back and took another look at the documentation, or I did a web search. But I never gave up.
Thanks to Apple for making the Mac customizable. If I were unable to add custom keyboard shortcuts to help navigate and read comments, I don't think this blog would have had a happy conclusion.
I have tamed the beast, and I hope this blog helps you do the same.
lovely and comprehensive blog
I use a windows PC. after reading this, I wonder whether Google docx is easier on windows? in the AFB's artical I checked, it said that the recommended browser for windows is firefox. and fortunately I find google docx very accessible.. though there are some miner issues.
Lol, just about everything is easier on Windows, especially Google Docs. Also, turning on Braille support may help on the mac side too.
It's not that much better on Windows. Google docs is a maze, regardless of your desktop OS of choice. It's decent on mobile though, but besides an iPad, editing documents on your phone just sounds like an awful time.
For personal and school work, I use Office 365, but I'm still forced to use google docs when working in collaboration. It's whatever, I guess. Wish it was better, but I suppose that's the kind of accessibility one comes to expect from Google.
Thanks for reading the blog. I appreciate the feedback and discussion.
I'm curious to know what specific tasks are easier in Docs on Windows than MacOS. I don't have a Windows 10 system, so really can't compare. Just from looking at the keyboard reference, the shortcuts seem to be comparable in complexity.
This should probably be its own separate forum topic.
In web page design, creating a palette of custom shortcuts has taken root as the de facto standard accessibility solution. This solution seems to have many inherent problems.
- The shortcuts are so obscure that you must use the websites regularly in order to memorize them.
- The shortcuts often conflict with or supercede screen reader functionality, as if the web designers didn't even consider how screen readers work.
- The design lacks completeness, as in shortcuts to open dialogs or tools that, in themselves, are inherently inaccessible and unusable.
Google Docs hits all three of those bullets, but it's not alone. I feel the same about many other sites, including facebook.com, twitter.com, and a writing site called NaNoWriMo.org, to name a few.
A better solution would be to look at how blind people navigate web pages with screen readers and simply design websites that work with our existing knowledge and habits. Not only would this be a better solution for blind users, but it should cost developers less to design such sites.
I loved your piece. And, it led me to a reasonable conclusion. I now know that i am not likely to ever use Google Docs to write anything. Like most folks, I am quite used to memorizing keyboard shortcuts to get things accomplished, but this sounds way beyond fun. I, too, love to write, but have simple needs and am much happier if I can just focus on the content.
As always, I found your writing informative, well organized clear and clever. Still, I felt your pain. I felt like you really were fighting your way through a a Doom scenario, fighting dangerous mutants in the hallways. I am glad to know you vanquished the Beast. Even so, I think I will stick to using my Apple Magic keyboard and my iPhone to do my writing.
Well done, sir, you showed that becoming adept at Google Docs is possible. And, you have convinced me that you have patience and fortitude that I do not possess. Thanks for writing such a useful piece on something that shows great insight. You have saved me much time in my quest to find a really useful, simple word processor that is truly accessible. And, good luck with the Beast.
Paul, your blog was excellent. Thank you!
I really enjoyed this post. My only question is about navigating the menus. I am using chrome and I find that whenever I press the pass-through keys and then the menu keys, I am unable to get any further into the menus. By this I mean that when I press control option tab, followed by control option and the latter of the menu I want such as F for file, when I press the down arrow I do not see the items within the menu. I am wondering if you ran into this issue or know why it might be happening. Are used Docs a few months ago without this issue and have been unable to find answers as to why the issue might be happening on various Internet searches. if I want to use the insert menu for example, when I down arrow to try and get into the menu all it keeps saying is insert menu and insert image on a sort of feedback loop but it does not let me see other items within the insert menu.
again this was a very informative post!
Hi Jackie. Thanks for the comment.
Huh, that's a new problem that I've never encountered. I do VO+tab, control+option+I, and I hear VoiceOver announce "menu, Insert". As I down arrow through the menu, I hear VoiceOver read the options for inserting images, tables, drawings, etc. These are all submenus that open with right arrow.
The most common menu issue I encounter is that VO+tab, control+option+I does nothing and VoiceOver says nothing. If I hit escape and try it again, everything is fine.
Does refresh command+R help? Or close and reopen the document? Or toggle Voiceover off and on? Obviously none of this should be necessary, but Google Docs is the poster child for work-arounds.
Keep us posted.
I guess I should mention that I primarily use Safari, mainly because Chrome is just too slow when moving to comments and reading comment text. I may not have used Docs in Chrome as much as you, though I did use it extensively while learning Docs and writing this blog, and did not encounter the issue you describe.
I have just tried using both safari and chrome. Unfortunately, refreshing the page, turning VoiceOver on and off, and closing and opening the document does not help. I have tried having quicknav on and off to no success. I hear the following when navigating menus in safari with quicknav off: I press the passthrough keys followed by VO,I and hear "menu pop-up menu with fifteen items insert menu" I press down arrow and hear "image I (right pointing triangle) interactive menu item" another down arrow brings me back to insert, and another brings me back to image. Hitting the right arrow shows me other options like bullets but not options relating to image options. If I have quicknav on, I can navigate down the menus but hitting right arrow only moves me to the next menu tab, such as from insert to format.
I'm sad that I'm having these issues as my software is up to date on chrome, safari, and the Mac OS.
I can work around all of this on my phone but I would love to be able to work on my computer as I did a few months ago.
Wow. Sorry to hear about this. I wish I could help. The only workaround I can think of is to not use the menus. Either search the menus with Alt+/, or just use keyboard shortcuts. There are some things that don't have shortcuts and you would have to search the menus for that. But browsing the menus sheds a lot of light on what the software can do. If you don't have this problem with Safari, you might try using it instead of Chrome. If anyone else has this same problem, please post advice or work-arounds.
I recently encountered a Google Doc that used the Header paragraph style at the start of each section. I was disappointed to discover that VO+Command+H does not move from one header to the next.
I don’t know whether it was my recent move from an MBP to a Mac Mini, or the upgrade from Catalina to Big Sur, but the Automator Workflow / AppleScript for navigating and reading comments stopped working. I got this error:
The action “Run AppleScript” encountered an error: “System Events got an error: Automator Workflow Runner (WorkflowServiceRunner, RunNextCommand) is not allowed to send keystrokes.”
I fixed this by going to System Preferences -> Security and Privacy, arrowing down to Accessibility, entering my password to open the lock, and then finally removing Safari from the table and adding it back again.
I can't work with Google Sheets on Macbook and Windows. I can only control, edit and add with iPhone. Probably my use of Voice Over and NVDA is pretty poor. Sorry, I can't use it. The only thing I can do for Google Sheets on Macbook and Windows is to open Google Sheets. Afterwards I cannot navigate, I cannot view menus, I cannot activate keyboard shortcuts when I try to use keyboard shortcuts after VO + tab shortcut. What is the reason I cannot master the tables with a screen reader? Can you work efficiently with Google Sheets? Can you write down your process steps after opening the table? Google accessibility must be open; because I can use other Google products without any problems. I can use Drive and forms very practically and quickly with keyboard shortcuts. I can do many complex and repetitive operations very dynamically. I can never and never work only in Sheets. I also tried browsing through the fast scrolling modes for Voice Over, but I couldn't.
In Google Drive, using the J and K keys to navigate through the list of files reads the name and file type only. To get additional information about the currently selected file, such as file size, you must navigate to the details region. To get there quickly, press VO+Command+R.
The details region is a table containing file type, size, owner, and modification dates, along with other information.
To return to the list of files, press G, L. If this fails to work for whatever reason (only Google and God know why), press G, N first, then G, L.
I've been using Google Sheets a little lately. I'm no expert yet, but if there's interest, I might attempt a blog on that subject.
I can use google sheets fairly well on windows, a bit on mac but easier, way easier on windows. I use it as part of my job.
I was having the same problem. In the voiceover utility on my Mac, under navigation, I changed the setting for mouse pointer to ignores voiceover cursor. This magically let me navigate the google docs menus. I hope this helps.
If you can't arrow through the menus, it's probably because you have Mouse Pointer set to Follows VoiceOver Cursor. To fix this, go to VoiceOver Utility, Navigation, and set Mouse Pointer to Ignores VoiceOver Cursor.
Thanks for this tip. I've edited the main article text to include it.
Thank you for this informative post. I'm wondering if you have experience with moving between different elements in a document, such as headings, tables, and lists? Using the keyboard command to move to previous and next heading doesn't do anything for me. Also, I'm wondering if there's a way to turn off the VO pass through keys so you can use docs specific commands?
The normal VoiceOver commands to navigate by heading, table, etc., don't work, so you must use the Google Docs shortcuts.
To move to next heading, press Control+Command+N, Control+Command+H. And to move to previous heading, swap P for N. This works pretty reliably for me, but there is an undocumented timeout of about a second, so you must execute the keypresses quickly.
I'm not sure why, but they added the Shift key for moving between tables. Move to next table with Control+Command+Shift+N, Control+Command+Shift+T. Again, swap a P for N to move to previous. This is difficult because you need to swap hands, hitting N or P with the right hand and T with the left. You must press Control+Command+Shift+N then very quickly press Control+Command+Shift+T. It took me several tries before I could execute that command without the timeout kicking in. The timeout isn't customizable as far as I know.
It's really a very poorly designed system of keyboard shortcuts. They are challenging to memorize, painful to execute, and redundant with screen reader functionality. We should not have to write custom AppleScript to make Google Docs usable, but as I wrote in the article above, I had to do that to facilitate reviewing text with comments.
For moving between lists, I'll leave this as an exercise for the reader: Open the keyboard shortcut reference with Command+/ and type the word "list" into the search box. This should tell you how to navigate between lists, as well as how to create them.