Yo, human! - Proofreading Mac, a VoiceOver Activity: Accessing Life with Adaptive Technology

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Yo, human! - Proofreading Mac, a VoiceOver Activity: Accessing Life with Adaptive Technology

Before my VoiceOver adventures began I was able to proofread my creative and technical writings quickly and easily. My constant struggle with grammar aside, I could find misspellings and punctuation errors, even capitalization and formatting issues with ease. I could quickly blast through multi-page documents in a matter of minutes. Then my longtime visual orientation completely evolved into an audible one. This presented many new challenges to overcome, including proof-reading by listening.

I explored many avenues of adaptation to help me navigate my computer before learning VoiceOver. One of the first was the Speakable Items feature of previous Mac OSs. I used AppleScript to automate many functions including sending keystrokes to the computer then changing them to spoken commands using Speakable Items. Using AppleScript's "say" command, I even had my Mac orally responding to my spoken commands. I could say "Computer" and it would often reply with "Good guess!" However, changes in my own approach and in the OS began to make this situation less applicable. I discovered that quick verbal navigation, while helping tremendously, would not be enough. As my path towards VoiceOver progressed my need for proofing my materials became both more apparent and more of an unknown.

When the Dictation feature was introduced, I dove in thinking that this would increase my writing speeds immensely, which it did. Unfortunately, it also increased my need for proof-reading as well. I remember emailing a colleague, trying to explain some of the issues and how I had to watch for phonetically misspelled words. His somewhat humorous reply was "Fanatically misspelled words?" Case in point, I now use Dictation sporadically and mostly on iOS. However, the Dictation service definitely deserves another future look.

I could be considered a mid-speed tripod typist, poking at the keyboard with three fingers on each hand. Because of my narrowed eyesight, I had perfected my typing skills by looking at the keyboard rather than the computer screen. I took it on faith that my typing was actually appearing in my document. I only occasionally looked up to confirm what I was creating. This "writing on faith" method became inappropriate over time along with the others, but were a very good precursor to my headlong dive into VoiceOver. Throughout the several years of these methods it was becoming apparent that proof-reading by listening would be a huge part of my future.

Now after a few years of using VoiceOver exclusively I am finding several VO methods that are beginning to help. I should state that I am by no means an expert at this, I am still going through much of the learning curve myself. One of the things that I discovered was the use of VO's Activities and using them to help me proof-read my materials. While not being a complete solution, the methods described below seem to be a good couple of additions to the process.

Activities, in General.

Activities can be created by opening the VoiceOver Utility, press Control-Option-f8. Include the fn key if working on a laptop. In the Features table near the bottom, choose Activities then exit the table and arrow to the right until you find the Activities Table. Once more to the right will land you on the 'Add button' where you can create a new Activity. After creating and naming an Activity exit the Activities table. Arrowing to the right again will reveal all of the VO settings that can be altered for an Activity.

In the Settings area, choose a category by marking its checkbox, then one arrow to the right to Activate the Set button. You will be presented with the same window from the default VO settings. All of the standard panes and tabs are presented, change them at will. When finished with that category, activate the default 'Done' button near the bottom of the window. This will apply your new settings to the currently selected Activity in the Activities Table. I will not try to relate all of the possibilities that appear as it would require more length than is appropriate for a blog post. Farther below find the custom settings that I currently use for my proofing and Reading Activity's.

Of note, many people highly customize their default VoiceOver settings to their own preferences. When using Activities on a Mac, to the best of my knowledge, any settings designated in an Activity will over-ride those same settings of your current VO set up. Any Activity settings that are not customized will use your default VO settings. Example: I have QuickNav setup the way I like as part of my own default VO settings. When I create a new activity, I do not have to set up QuickNav in the Activity because it is already using my default VO settings for QuickNav. Using Activities is like having a temporary additional set-up while you navigate under that Activity, but everything uses your custom default VO settings unless you change them. Plus everything reverts when you switch back to your default set up.

Proofing and Reading Activities.

In general:

My proofing Activity speaks all punctuation and changes in attributions, plus announces misspelled words. It uses sound effects with spatial audio to help indicate the layout of the document. By default VO already raises pitch for capitalization and quoted text. In my default VO settings I have Intonation set in the 90s to help with this and to indicate sentence structure and paragraph flow. See the exact settings farther below.

My Reading Activity speaks no punctuation, attributions, misspellings or sound effects. It is slowed down with my chosen Voice to an audio book speed. I listen to longer documents this way while I kick back and relax. While writing, I also use it for listening to sentence and paragraph structure and to help maintain the content flow from one section to another. The VO cursor is magnified some even though I cannot see it, in case I want to record the screen while it reads one sentence at a time, making a nice "follow the bouncing ball" type presentation. These can work well for the blind and visually impaired and possibly those with reading hurdles as well. This also gives the additional opportunities for the sighted to improve their listening skills, growing comfortable with computer voices. They can read along while they listen.

I do not set my two activities for any specific app, instead I switch between them using Activity Chooser. Control-Option-X. I guess I am somewhat of a control-freak when it comes to my computer. I like to have a more direct approach over which navigation mode I am currently using and do not want it to change because I quickly switched to another app.

If you often only use two Activities, Control-Option-x-x, will switch back and forth between the current and previously chosen Activity. If you have more than two Activities, you can also move vertically through the Chooser list and press control-Option-Spacebar to activate. The Activity Chooser will always show your custom "VoiceOver default settings" as one of the choices.

The settings given below are my selected settings for each of my Activities. As I find more options that work with either one, I can add them to the existing Activities. This way they grow over time with use.

Proofing Activity:

In VoiceOver Utility>Activities, with Proofing selected in the Activities table.

Note: I am skipping over entire sections of the settings because they are features that I do not use, such as Braille. Perhaps someone with experience in these areas can provide better information. For brevity I am also skipping past settings that are being left at default, I am only showing the settings that I altered or confirmed.

Verbosity Settings:

Speech Tab:

Default Speech Verbosity: High.
Set to High for as much information as possible, without customizing.

Additional speech verbosity options, disclosure triangle.
Expand this for the custom verbosity table full of options to customize Verbosity with VoiceOver.

Text Tab:

Punctuation: All.
This is a pop-up button with various levels. I use 'All' so I can hear double punctuation, quotes etc.

Repeated punctuation: Always spoken.
This is a pop-up button with various amounts of repeats. My setting allows VO to always read everything.

While typing speak: Characters and words.
I like to hear certain words as a confirmation as I type.

When text attributes change: Speak attributes.
This announces changes in text styles. I found this to be a good thing to keep track of, especially for those unintentional changes.

When encountering a misspelled word: Speak attributes.
This option says "misspelled" while reading the word, it definitely catches my attention. See more about misspellings and auto-stuff in the tips section near the bottom.

When encountering a link/attachment: Speak.
This simply includes the word "Link" when one is encountered.

Read numbers as: Digits
This reads each digit of a number, which all need proofing as well.

When reading a capital letter: Speak Cap.
Cap P, Cap D, etc. Note, VO only says "Cap" when encountering a single capital letter. On capitalized words it changes pitch instead.

Announcements Tab:

I have most of these settings turned off, except for...

Announce when the Caps Lock key is pressed: Checked.
This notifies me immediately of accidental presses.

Speak header when navigating across a table row: Checked.
This helps track my position when navigating through tables.

Automatically speak text in dialog boxes: Unchecked.
This helps me retain focus on proofing, especially when it interrupts something like code. Suddenly I am proofing a warning message instead. :-)

Speak text under mouse after delay: Unchecked.
I confirm that this is off, since my mouse cursor is mostly unused.

Hints Tab:

In this pane I turn everything off, trying to fine-tune the experience for proofing. I can make another Activity for discovering the OS at a later date.

Speak instructions for using the item in the VoiceOver cursor: Unchecked.

When an item has a help tag: Do nothing.

After completing the Verbosity settings, I move down to "additional settings to include" and expand the triangle. The only remaining settings I alter is Sound. Check the box and activate the Set button.

Sound Settings:

Mute sound effects: Unchecked.

Enable audio ducking: Unchecked.

Enable positional audio: Checked.
This helps occasionally by making sound effects from the sides of the screen where the cursor generated the sound.

Reading Activity:

Many people have their own preferences when customizing VoiceOver to their own needs. In my Reading Activity, I wanted it to sound as if someone else was reading my materials to me at a natural pace. This ended up involving turning almost everything down or off so as little extra information is relayed as possible.

To get started, I created another Activity using the Add button and named it "Reading." In VoiceOver Utility>Activities, with Reading selected in the Activities table, the Settings area includes...

Verbosity Settings:

Speech Tab:

Default Speech Verbosity: Low.
For Reading, I only want it to speak what I typed.

Punctuation: None.
This seems to work best for relaxed listening and tracking sentence and paragraph structure.

When text attributes change: Do nothing.

Read only what was typed.

When encountering a misspelled word: Do nothing.

When encountering a link/attachment: Do nothing.

Read numbers as: Words.

When reading a capital letter: Do nothing.

Announcements Tab:

Everything in this pane is left to defaults except the following settings...

Announce when the Caps Lock key is pressed: Checked

Speak header when navigating across a table row: Unchecked.

Hints Tab:

Speak instructions for using the item in the VoiceOver cursor: Unchecked.

When an item has a help tag: Do nothing.

Additional settings to include: Expanded.
Expanding this allows for my Reading Activity to access the additional settings below.

Voices Settings:

Using the Alex voice...

Rate: set to 38.
This slows down the voice to a speed that allows for easy recognition of all consonants. It can also be a decent speed for those new to computer voices without being too fast.

Intonation: set to 95.
This changes the tonal qualities and inflections with certain types of punctuation. The inflection changes and Alex pauses when encountering a comma. The Intonation drops some at the end of a sentence when finding a period, and rises on a Question Mark. Other punctuation that only mildly effected speech now does it a bit more.

Sounds Settings:

Mute sound effects: Checked.
This prevents all VO Sound Effects from playing.

All other settings in this pane are turned off.

Visuals Settings:

VoiceOver Cursor Tab:

Show VoiceOver cursor: Checked.
This highlights the VO cursor with a boundary rectangle, making it more visible.

VoiceOver Cursor Magnification: 4.
This enlarges the item in the VO cursor as it moves.

When reading text, move VoiceOver cursor by: Sentence.
This highlights and magnifies what is being read, a sentence at a time. This option also applies to the "Read all" function of VO, Control-Option-A, which reads from the current VO cursor position to the bottom of the document.

All other options for the Visuals Settings are turned off including; Caption Panel, Braille Panel, and Touch screens. The Menus Tab is left to defaults.

Finally, with any of my Activities I leave the following setting empty.

Use this activity for: Apps & Websites.

Use this activity for: blank. I leave this text field empty so that no amount of app switching will change my current Activity. I use the Activity Chooser to flip through my created Activities, Control-Option-X.

There you have it, my two main Activities for proofing my materials. One for punctuation and misspellings, the other for flow and structure. The Reading Activity is also set to be visually informative, in case I am using it for instructing a client or doing a screen recording.

There is much more that can go into proof-reading your materials. The use of customized Activities can help with some of the meticulous work. Activities can be created for any number of navigation modes. Which ones you create should always fit your particular needs. In the future I will probably make one for Copy and Paste methods, shutting off all extra info being stated by VO. This gives me more time to press Control-Option-Shift-C, which copies the last spoken phrase by VO. Even perhaps one for Discovery mode, where everything is set to relate maximum info, to help learn more about an interface or web page.

There seems to be only scattered information online about proof-reading with a screen-reader. One of the more complete findings is below.

A good resource for basic proof-reading with JAWS, NVDA and VoiceOver: http://www.learningally.org/College-Success/Core-Curriculum/Discovering-Technology/Proofreading-with-Screen-Readers

Tips for Writing and Proofing:

You can use Command-; (semi-colon), to jump to the next misspelled word. To get a list of suggestions, press Control-Option-Shift-M, to pop up the contextual menu then arrow down through the list. Note: this does not move the VO cursor to the word, making it hard to check it in context.

Try using the VO key press; Control-Option-Command-E to find the next misspelling. Use Control-Option-Command-Shift-E to find the previous one. This method does move the VO cursor into place.

I don't like auto-stuff happening while I type or proof-read, perhaps my inner control freak is showing again. I like to maintain a manual control over things, though I am possibly missing some great features. Currently I turn off the following features:

In Keyboard Preferences>Text Tab, I turn off the following options; Correct spelling automatically, Capitalize words automatically, Add period with double-space, Use smart quotes and dashes.

This set-up prevents anything from changing or popping up and becoming a distraction.

You can change the Verbosity levels on the fly by pressing, Control-Option-v. Then hold down Control-Option and use the right and left arrows to flip through the Verbosity settings. Use up and down arrows to increase or decrease each setting. Press Control-Option-Spacebar to confirm your changes and return to normal navigation.

You can adjust the Speech settings by holding down, Control-Option-Command and use the arrow keys in the same fashion as above. Let go of every key when done, to return to normal navigation.

Customizing VoiceOver on Mac. Activities are described near the bottom of this Apple guide on customizing VoiceOver

Apple's Support page for Activities: https://support.apple.com/kb/PH22559?viewlocale=en_US&locale=en_US

An older but still relevant podcast by one of our own: Mac Basics #23: Creating and Using VoiceOver Activities, by David Woodbridge

A descriptive reminder that all of our cool digital stuff that we work with, play with and enjoy, is all about "Living." Live well!

Portions copyright Apple, Inc. All rights reserved.



Submitted by Morgan Watkins on Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team


I used to do all of my writing on my desktop computer and I sure wish I had had a resource like this current blog. I imagine that most writers with visual impairments invent their own solutions for optimizing the creative and proofing processes. Your blog will likely help others save time in finding their own best setup.

I use my iPhone as my primary computer nowadays, and am always looking for better ways to organize and review my own writing. This blog has given me some new ideas.

So, thank you, sir. A very thorough and interesting blog.

Best wishes,


Submitted by Ekaj on Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nicholas, this is very helpful. I knew about the VoiceOver Utility, but I must admit I never really looked at the Activities option. Actually I think I inadvertently created one of these for iTunes, but I don't particularly like it so the Activities option just might come in handy for me at some point. In addition, I can now better assist my sister who uses VoiceOver and her fully-sighted tutor. She isn't quite as experienced with computers as are her brothers. At some point I'm definitely checking out David Woodbridge's info on Activities, as well as the other stuff to which you linked here. But for now the VO Utility has worked well for me. Thanks again for posting this.

Submitted by Nicholas on Thursday, April 6, 2017

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Morgan,
Thank you for the comments. It's good to hear that my post helped to inspire some into deeper levels. Speaking of that, I would be really interested to know a bit about your writing set up on your iPhone. Do you use a bluetooth keyboard? Any specific apps that you prefer for writing? I don't write much on iOS, yet. :-)
I really enjoy your posts! You have a wonderful way of connecting with people. I have read every one of your posts. I look forward to them every month. Really nice!
Thanks again for your comments.
Best wishes!

Submitted by Nicholas on Thursday, April 6, 2017

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Ekaj,
I am glad you enjoyed the post. As I am finding myself, the Mac VoiceOver has many deeper levels that can offer better adaptation. I hope this helps your sister as well!
Thank you for your continuing comments and contributions! If you explore Activities in the future, please consider sharing your experiences.
Always good to hear from you.
Best wishes. :-)

Submitted by Morgan Watkins on Thursday, April 6, 2017

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team


Thanks for your kind response.

In answer to your question... I do all of my writing through my iPhone 6S Plus, utilizing my Keys-To-Go BlueTooth keyboard. Of course, now I am listening to my work through my new AirPods, which I really enjoy. My favorite text processor is Voice Dream Writer which has both an awesome spell checker built in and a very handy proof reading engine.

Text processing on the iPhone used to be pretty good, and it worked well with my BlueTooth keyboards. Unfortunately, with iOS 9, a few idiosyncrasies crept into the BlueTooth keyboard text editing functionality. It still needs some work in iOS 10.3.1. These hiccups are not show-stoppers, but a mild pain. I have gotten used to working around them. Even so, I choose to remain hopeful that they may yet be fixed by Apple. It's probably time for me to document those short-comings again. I do love to do my writing absolutely anywhere.

Nicholas, please keep up these really useful, interesting and entertaining posts. I especially appreciate all of the focus on how to take even greater advantage of the Mac with VoiceOver. I always learn something from your efforts

Warm wishes,


Submitted by Ekaj on Friday, April 7, 2017

I set up an Activity for my website, with specific settings. The process is of course entirely accessible and I have no complaints about it. I'm looking forward to doing other cool things with this feature, and yes I'm absolutely going to share this stuff with my sister and her tutor. Regarding the whole writing process, I use MarsEdit and like it very much. I also compose journal entries directly from my website itself, since the entire admin area is completely accessible with VoiceOver.

Submitted by Voracious P. Brain on Sunday, April 9, 2017

First, @Morgan: good to catch you on Applevis. I used to work with J.S. at ITAL and crossed paths with you a few times back in the day.

Since IOS doesn't support activities, some of the suggestions here point to what is still a superiority of writing on a laptop. But what I wish is that punctuation and some other things like attributes were part of the Mac rotor.
As a professor, I grade papers and write for a living. I've also edited the manuscripts of others and taught freshman comp. Hearing a document is far superior to seeing it for proofreading. That's why the best advice anyone gives or receives regarding proofreading is to read it aloud. Add in punctuation, and nothing at all escapes proofreading, other than, perhaps, words that sound correct when misspelled. I can't emphasize the speech advantage here enough. I mean, it has to give us an advantage in *something,* right?
Voiceover's implementation of activities makes turning all these features on much smoother than the way it's done by NVDA or JAWS, as far as I know. Jaws binds customizations to particular applications. If there's a way to trigger one with a keypress, I don't know what it is after 20 years of using the software. [Correction: Jaws uses the "speech and sound" schemes, which I'd forgotten about] NVDA comes close with a key to bring up the configuration profiles dialog box. The one issue I have had in the past with activities is that they have been slow to trigger and sometimes don't consistently trigger at all when focusing on an app that's supposed to trigger the activity automatically.
Finally, anyone who invests a lot in Activities and commander customizations should consider keeping a flash drive around to store Voiceover portable settings on.

Submitted by Nicholas on Sunday, April 9, 2017

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello all,
Thanks so much for all the great comments! I am very gratified that my blog is helping to foster this conversation. These additional comments and suggestions are a huge benefit to everyone, including myself. This is one of the reasons I love being a member of AppleVis, it is truly empowered by the community members. Very cool!
Morgan, Thanks for sharing your writing set up. I will be looking into the Voice Dream Writer. I currently do all of my writing in TextEdit. It is a bit plain, without many of the advantages of a more fluent writing app. It seems to fit my life at the moment, but I am starting to look for a more complete package. Writing on iOS would be a huge benefit as well.
Ekaj, Thanks for sharing your writing set up as well! I have heard good things about MarsEdit. I think I used a much earlier version of it about 15 years ago, MacOS 9? This was before my use of a screen reader. How does it function with VO? Also if appropriate, can you share a link to your website? I would love to have a look. Thanks again for sharing, myself and others appreciate and learn from your posts.
Hello Voracious P. Brain, I love your handle! I may have one of those as well. :-) Thank you for the great contribution. I agree that listening to your writings using a computer voice is a huge help. I am taking your suggestions to heart since I am about to take on the learning curve of JAWS myself. I too wish that the Mac VO rotor was more customizable. One tip that may help, which you may already be aware of;
You can change many of the Verbosity settings on-the-fly by pressing Control-Option-v to enter the Verbosity Rotor, then use Control-Option-left and right arrows to flip through the Verbosity settings. Use Control-Option-up and down arrows to change the current setting. These settings include Punctuation, attributes and changes, and most other Verbosity settings. Press Control-Option-Spacebar to exit the Verbosity Rotor.
Also thanks for the great tip about making a backup of your customized VO settings onto a portable USB drive. Look at the Portable Preferences options in; VoiceOver Utility>General>Portable Preferences. It always pays to have a back up.
Thanks again for your contribution!
Best regards,

Submitted by Voracious P. Brain on Sunday, April 9, 2017

Although I purchased VD Writer, I regret it so far. If you're really just writing on IOS, it's a really good thing. But it becomes very cumbersome very quickly to move from IOS to Mac or PC, because Writer holds its files proprietarily, it seems: it only opens plain-text files, and you have to export files before opening them someplace else. I use Ulysses now, after finding out about it here. It's not for everyone, though, and Pages itself is much better now than it was, say, two weeks ago. Text-edit is actually perfectly adequate for basic writing tasks.
Given that you obviously have a Mac, why are you about to need to dive into the bottomless pit of instability that is Jaws? For work? I'm in the process of switching away from Windows as much as possible to get away from crashes between Jaws and MS Office that I've put up with, version after version, particularly with Office 2013 and 2016. Still can't quite do it entirely, though. That discussion would be scope creep for this post, but there's a lot to say about work/personal splits between Mac and PC, and it's always a moving target as software changes.

Submitted by Nicholas on Monday, April 10, 2017

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

hello Voracious P. Brain,
Thanks for the heads up on VDW. I have yet to check out Pages on Mac/iOS using VO. I used it heavily on Mac a few years ago. Then my sight took a turn and I dove into VO. Maybe I need to give Pages another look.
I recently became involved with a local agency to help me train. Since I have had no training on the Win side of screen readers, I decided it was time. I have 20+ years experience with Windows in the sighted world, fixing, troubleshooting and building Windows systems, I have plenty of ground to begin my journey. I am actually looking forward to learning the basic ropes so I can move beyond them. Something my Mom always taught us kids when we were young, you must first understand the box before you can think outside the box. So I am preparing to climb into the big box known as JAWS. Then most likely NVDA as well. I am also looking forward to exploring Win10 Narrator, I am hearing good things about it. I have done a bit of scripting on Mac and Win in the past, kind of excited to see what can be done with JAWS.
If it were not for this agency I would probably be installing Win10 on my Mac, just to check it out. I guess I want to have as many tools in my pocket as possible. Although, the AT Councilor from the agency says I should be teaching classes rather than taking them. :-)
All that being said, my Mac will always be my favorite machine! Thanks for the heads up on Office, I am hearing similar things on the web as well.

Thanks for your response. I appreciate your advice.
Best regards, Nicholas.

Submitted by Ekaj on Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hi Nicholas and sorry for the delay in responding. But MarsEdit works great with VoiceOver. This is true for both trial and paid versions. It uses standard controls, although the interface does get a bit difficult to navigate with Tab alone. But it is still very accessible. I have yet to try out the media upload feature, but it looks pretty easy to use. The website for MarsEdit is http://www.red-sweater.com if you wish to take a look. The developer is very responsive to user feedback, which is another thing I like about it. I've not used any of his other products though so cannot comment on those. My website is https://jazzyjj.dreamwidth.org .

Submitted by Nicholas on Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Ekaj,
Thanks for the links. I looked at your blog, very nice and personable. Lots of good links included as well. I will be back to read more. :-)
The first pearl I found was your experiences with NFB-NEWSLINE. A great resource! I'll be looking into their web version soon. Bookmarked.
Thanks as well for the link to MarsEdit. It looks like a great writing app and I see they have a 30-day trial.
I enjoyed your blog, you sound like a busy guy. Thanks for sharing!
Best regards, Nicholas

Submitted by Nicholas on Saturday, April 15, 2017

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

HelloPa. Joe,
You are very welcome. I am glad it helped. :-)
Thanks for posting.
Best wishes, Nicholas.

Submitted by Mohamed Fayed on Saturday, April 22, 2017

Thank you very much for this great post, Mr. Nicholas . :)
Actually, I'm thinking of getting myself a new Mac and it seems a very good investment. :) This great interactivity I get with the VO makes it a good friend :)

And thank you all for these fascinating comments. :)
The more I read in this blog ,the more I learn. :)

Submitted by Nicholas on Sunday, April 23, 2017

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Mohamed Fayed,
Thank you for your kind words. I am glad the post is helping some. I agree that the Mac is an exceptional tool. It is like a good friend to me as well.
All of these great comments are also helping me, AppleVis is a wonderful community effort. :-)
Thank you again for your comments!
Best wishes, Nicholas.