The New Features, Changes, Improvements, and Bugs in macOS 11 Big Sur for Blind and Low Vision Users

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

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.

VoiceOver Recognition

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.

Other Changes

  • 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.

Change List

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.

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.

In Conclusion

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.

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Comments

Submitted by Skippy on Thursday, November 12, 2020

Good afternoon,
What about the bug that I found with notifications, as well as the other one, that I reported to the team? Has anyone else seen these?

If these bugs are not present for others, I may consider upgrading, however, if others experience them, I may hold off a while.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Thursday, November 12, 2020

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Is this a big OS revision, or isn't it?

The OS still runs on Intel-based Macs. The core OS hasn't changed - no mention of Darwin disappearing. Most changes seem like GUI-related window dressing, all fairly cosmetic. Lots of talk in the blog-o-sphere about transparency, new icons, and vertical space between menu items. Yawn.

Big Sur adds support for a new CPU while maintaining support for existing CPUs. That's it. And for this, they bump the major revision number?

Personally, I think Apple just wants to limit the number of older machines they have to test. Bumping the major revision number gives them an excuse to stop supporting the 2012 MacBook Pro, for example, even though it's Intal processor, in all likelihood, can run Big Sur just as well as the 2014 MacBook Pro, which Big Sur still supports.

Put me down as frustrated and inconvenienced. I do a lot with my computers, and upgrading the OS is no trivial matter. Yet I must suffer a few days of downtime and retraining for essentially no significant new features or performance.

Submitted by boo on Thursday, November 12, 2020

Hey guys. Does anyone know when macOS big sir will be available for Australian customers?

Submitted by Seva on Thursday, November 12, 2020

Yeah, that happened to me. I believe I have to wait some time and try again. I remember that the same thing happened with one of the previous versions of macOS, but I don't remember how I fixed it.

Submitted by MelodicFate on Thursday, November 12, 2020

I'm glad it's not just me. Now let's hope someone figures out what we should do to fix this.

Submitted by Beth Taurasi on Thursday, November 12, 2020

I'm having the annoying error, and I tried to update three times, but no, it won't let me. Stupid as this update would have provided those voiceover fixes, and I want those. Please, someone please tell me how to fix this because my poor partner doesn't know or doesn't have the answers.

Submitted by dvdmth on Thursday, November 12, 2020

Club AppleVis Member

I read elsewhere that Apple is having a widespread outage which is preventing Big Sur from installing, so if you're getting errors, try again later.

The issue is apparently also causing some Mac apps to fail to launch, presumably because security checks aren't happening properly.

Submitted by MelodicFate on Friday, November 13, 2020

Subject says it all. I restarted, and the download picked up where it left off. It's now going with no problems as of yet.

Submitted by Chris on Friday, November 13, 2020

According to Apple's What's new page for VoiceOver in Big Sur, it's now possible to independently select the input and output settings for a Braille display. It's also possible to automatically scroll the display. There's also a setting that supposedly alerts you when a system dialog is displayed. https://support.apple.com/guide/voiceover/whats-new-in-voiceover-vo1562…

This is good, but have they fixed all the irritating little bugs that have been around for years? Do the Nuance voices finally not lag when you select them?

Submitted by Justin on Friday, November 13, 2020

I just updated to big sur earlier this evening. Everything went pretty smoothly after I restarted. No issues here whatsoever. I'm sure their are some, but whatever. THey're not a big deal.

Submitted by SoYoung on Friday, November 13, 2020

This update seems much smoother on my iMac late 2015 so far, but after all these years, I can't believe we still can't increase fonts (I mean, accessibility fonts) like we can in iOS since the very first iPhone. We still have to low the entire system resolution to do that and even with that its not as big as I'd like too in some situations.

Submitted by Cliff on Friday, November 13, 2020

I'm actually a bit baffled that I haven't seen this bug mentioned anywhere else, and that now makes me scratch my head and wonder if this is only happening on my Mac.
Thing is, ever since first beta of Big Sur, and now still present in the final release, I have not been able to navigate to next or previous folder using right and left arrow keys in column view in Finder.
Once VO focus is set on e.g. my Dropbox folder when in column view, I have always been able to use right arrow to expand the folder and go in to the next subfolder. Or when inside my Dropbox folder, I should be able to hit left arrow to go back to my home folder again, but nothing happens when pressing either left or right arrow in Finder.
Well, my sighted wife can confirm that hitting the right arrow actually opens the next subfolder, but VO focus stays put on the same folder as before.
I have sometimes had luck using a method of first hitting right arrow, and then pressing Shift+VO+Space to simulate a mouse click, and this would be a workaround that sometimes has worked to move the VO focus to the correct subfolder that has been opened by pressing the right arrow key, but this has not been consistent for me.
And if right or left arrow haven't worked in the past for any good reason, I have always been able to use the global Finder shortcuts Cmd+Down arrow to expand into the next subfolder or Cmd+Up arrow for previous folder, but those shortcuts don't work either at this time. Actually, it could be that they work just fine for sighted users, but VO focus at the least stay put on the same folder as it was placed on before trying to go to next or previous folder using any known method.
So at this time, I'm really left with having to navigate Finder windows using list view, which I'm really not a huge fan of.
I've sent a couple of emails to accessibility@apple.com during the beta cycle period of Big Sur, and I've of course also reported this through the Feedback Assistant, but this bug has not been resolved this far for me at least.
Since there was no mention of this bug in this post either, I figured it might be some corrupted VO settings on my account that is the reason behind this non-working arrow navigation in column view. So I created a new, fresh test account to check how navigation in column view was working there, and sure enough, the same issue is true in a new account as well.
Has anyone else seen this, and if so, has anyone else found a fix for this, since no-one else has mentioned this frustrating Finder / VO focus bug?
I'm on a MacBook Pro 16 late 2019, running the latest build of Big Sur.

Submitted by VivekP on Friday, November 13, 2020

Hi all!
I just updated to big sur! One of the most awaited feature for me was the seamless switch between my devices using AirPods Pro. I cannot seem to manage the switch.
I was hoping while VO reads my mail on my Mac, (with AirPods Pro) I could pause my VO on Mac and pick up my I-Phone or read an upcoming notification on my I-Watch without going through bluetooth pairing of my AirPods Pro.
Have I got it wrong somehow or am I suppose to do anything?
Needless to say, all my devices are signed inn with a single Apple ID.
Any help will be highly appreciated.
Meanwhile, lets have a go at Big Sur, which by the by, seems much better than previous Mac OS updates.
Cheers!

Submitted by Milica Milić on Friday, November 13, 2020

Hi everyone. I just wanted to add for anyone who is low vision and is using zoom and voiceover that the zoom level keeps getting spoken when you change zoom with the option and trackpad combinations. I use this often depending on what I"m doing and while I see the idea behind reporting this information I find it intrusive since I doo it so often. I have not found a way to disable this so it may be worth noting if you are thinking to update and use both. Also the menu bar size mentioned in the article either doesn't change or doesn't change significantly. I kept thinking maybe it wasn't a change big enough for me to notice but I put the top edge of a window right up against the bar when it was standard and then changed it to see if it would come past the top edge of my window and it didn't. I feel like anyone who would have found this useful has already found a way to navigate it without this Big Sur only feature but if that's something you were looking forward to I have not found it to work. Lastly, the menu bar has dark icons on a light background if your overall background is light. The transparency effect never bothered me personally before but now even with dark mode the menu bar icons are dark on light if whatever's behind it is mostly light so I am seriously considering reduce transparency for the first time which does fix the problem.

Hello,
I too just noticed this after updating to Big Sur. When in column view I am unable to use just the arrow Keyes to move in and out of folders. I did find a work around. If you use VO plus the arrow keys you can move in and out of folders. So if you use VO plus right arrow you can move into a folder and then if you use VO plus left you will move back out.

This was an issue late afternoon and evening Greenwich Mean Time. I had been in the Apple Store, browsing through the refurbished Mac Mini models. I was called away from my computer, and when I returned, nothing was working. Apple's Twitter feed lit up with frustrated users. The Apple Store eventually came back to life as mysteriously as it died, and my 2018 Mac Mini arrives Monday. Yay!

Submitted by Cowboy on Friday, November 13, 2020

I am still experiencing random ducking occasionally when it makes the iPhone or iPad selection or navigation noises. It's not as often as it used to be but it is still there.

Yes, I have noticed this! It is very frustrating. When you use the right arrow to move over into a folder, the top item in your folder gets highlighted, but nothing is spoken. I cannot move up or down either.

This is also problematic because it is difficult to get to the side bar in the finder. You can turn quick nav on and get around like we used to, but when it is on, you cannot get to the sidebar.

Submitted by PiSquare on Friday, November 13, 2020

In reply to by Milica Milić

I second this! Nothing changed. The font is still the same. I logged out as instructed, but when I logged back in, the menu bar was exactly the same as I left it.

Oh lord, I never thought about using VO keys together with right and left arrow keys. I guess it's just too well implemented into my daily use that I've never had to interact with the browser area before trying to navigate Finder content, and I've always just used the arrow keys on their own before in column view. And to be clear, interacting with the browser area seems to be necessary to do before this method will work. If you don't interact with the content area first, VO+right arrow will jump to the Close button and further on to the Minimize button instead of opening subfolders.
So this is indeed a workaround, and I'm very happy that you told me about it.
But still, it's a much more clunky way to navigate finder content than I've ever been used to during my soon 10 years with different MacOS versions, since you would first need to interact with the browser area, and then have to keep the VO keys held down all the time while navigating.
I really hope they'll fix this soon, because this bug alone is really degrading my whole user experience using Big Sur.
It would really be nice if all of you guys who are also experiencing this bug would send a polite mail about this bug to accessibility@apple.com, in the hopes that it might help in speeding up the process of getting this Finder bug cleared out of the way as soon as possible.
Take care :)

Submitted by Kevin Shaw on Friday, November 13, 2020

As a service to my fellow screen reader users, Big Sur is spelled Big S, u, r—as in the location in California, not a large respected gentleman.

I just installed Big Sur with no issues. For those encountering the error, it does go away if you try later. By now, the Apple's CDN should have updated so the entire world has it.

I have a mid-2018 MBP with an SSD and 8 GB of RAM. Big Sur seems to have made VoiceOver a bit more snappy and responsive, in addition to the other apps on my system. Generally speaking, it's an improvement over 10.15.7. My one quibble with Messages is that you need to press on a conversation for it to gain focus and be the active conversation. Be careful that you don't accidentally text the wrong message to people. :)

Submitted by Skippy on Friday, November 13, 2020

During beta testing, I found a bug I'd deam serious.

When in regular recovery mode, if you press command f5, to turn on voiceover, it won't come up, and you'll see a flashing bar across the bottom of your screen.
Until this is fixed, you'll need to use internet recovery, if you need to reinstall for any reason.

Can anyone else confirm?

Submitted by Tim on Saturday, November 14, 2020

In reply to by Milica Milić

Yes! I constantly change my zoom level and VoiceOver announcing it every two seconds is very frustrating. Would have thought the setting be in VoiceOver Utility > Verbosity > Announcements. But no.

Submitted by SoYoung on Saturday, November 14, 2020

In reply to by Milica Milić

Just to add my thoughts on this feature. The fonts is a little bigger but its really a small difference, and the space between the menu options are larger. Its the same thing as when you check this option in iTunes/music/tv applications. It just a tiny bigger and larger than before, but it won't help very low vision people that much.

Submitted by cjsims on Saturday, November 14, 2020

Anyone noticed that since loading up Bigsur that the familiar Chime is back? It is for me.

Submitted by mr grieves on Saturday, November 14, 2020

Can't see any difference in the 'large' menu bar either.

One thing I did notice is that the options in the 'accessibilty' dropdown bar that you can add to the menu extras area are no longer disabled.

Not sure if this is intentional, but if I enable VoiceOver (which took me a few goes) from here, voiceover starts reading out my browser, even though the accessibility option is still expanded. I also can't seem to use up/down arrows on this menu.

One really small thing I don't like is with the dock being ever so slightly raised above the bottom of the screen. As someone who has used Windows 10 a lot it now looks like every application is open. It makes the little dot under each app almost impossible for me to see. The rounder icons are also less distinguishable from each other.

Submitted by Nawaf Allohaiby on Saturday, November 14, 2020

I wonder any information about INFOBOX developer to update app for compatibility with voiceover on macOS11?
I purchased voice to use it on my Mac; but sadly it’s not work on Mac OS X 11!.

Submitted by Justin on Saturday, November 14, 2020

Ivox voices haven't worked for me in a long while. I had to get sighted assistance from my aunt to remove the iVox voices since I had no speech with VO no matter what I did, unfortunately. Once we removed the iVox crap, the mac came back with alex sounding slow and drunk lol!! Once I got my rate back to where I like it, I was perfectly fine, and it's wokring fine since then. iVox voices don't work on my end, and I will not be purchasing them again...

Submitted by Krazy Kat on Saturday, November 14, 2020

Hi I immediately followed up on your tip and enlarged my menu bars. So far so good. Also , I will say that my overall impression of Big Sur is very good and that the new look works very well for me
On the downside. I could not get VoiceOver to read the Big Sur tour page which was made available at start up. Is it just me?

Submitted by David Standen on Sunday, November 15, 2020

Yes, the startup chime is back, and was turned off by default. I turned it on, but the volume is too soft. The same holds true for other sounds, such as sending and receiving of mail. I have attempted to solve this issue with no luck. Whenever I select Sounds under System Preferences and then select Output, whenever I increase the volume, it also increases the volume of the speech, which I don't want. I would like these sounds I mentioned above to be a little louder. Has anyone worked out how to solve this issue? Any help would be much appreciated.

Submitted by Felix on Sunday, November 15, 2020

VO navigation is very sluggish in Messages app and I can’t shift through messages list, only the last message can be read. Overall, I’m disappointed with Big Sur

Submitted by VivekP on Sunday, November 15, 2020

Hi all,
I have noticed that Siri voices have become extremely slow on the Big Sur.
Is anyone having this issue? Can anyone suggest any workaround as I rely heavily on the British male Siri voice.
Thank you,
Cheers!

If you're finding the voice is just too loud, there's a rather simple way to tell the thing to quit shouting. The controls for doing so can be found in the Voiceover utility. Summon this by using VO+F8, use command 3 to quickly move to the speech section, and locate the edit button past the initial voice and rate selections.

Submitted by Vincenzo Rubano on Monday, November 16, 2020

I am very disappointed with this Mac OS release, with Apple once again not putting as many efforts as are necessary to fix the sub-state of mac accessibility. Yet, they even make things worse. Arrow keys navigation in the finder while using column browser is completely broken. Keyboard shortcuts in Safari to move back and forth within web pages are broken, and their counterpart trackpad gestures do not work too. Spatial navigation in Safari has been reintroduced, yet it is the same sub-state it was in Mac OS Catalina before it was broken: no improvements there. Keyboard navigation in music and the messages app is sluggish to say the least. And I could go on mentioning new and old bugs that have to find a fix for multiple years now....

Sorry, but after all of these years of frustration little touches here and there are no longer enough, and regressions can no longer be tolerated. Mac accessibility needs some serious work to make blind people really efficient at accomplishing tasks, yet there seems not to b any awareness of this at Apple. Or perhaps they know, but are not willing to invest on this... If so, please fix and document accessibility APIs at the very least, make frameworks/products really respect them, and let others provide assistive technologies that *really* work. The number of frustrated mac users in our blind community keeps growing, and honestly I've stopped recommending a mac for a blind person who needs to be as efficient as possible in his/her everyday life since a while now, and will likely keep doing it.

But considering how superior iOS is in terms of accessibility, yet how much more expensive a macintosh is, the situation is really frustrating, and likely not to change anytime soon. Yet (too) enthusiastic interviews with people from Apple keep appearing in the AppleVis podcasts, without ever facing Apple accessibility engineers with the sad reality of the sub-state of mac accessibility...

Submitted by mr grieves on Monday, November 16, 2020

I've noticed that after switching to Big Sur, the alerts I get in PyCharm are now bright white, with macos dark theme. I presume this is a standard macos alert and not a pycharm thing. This is horrible for me as I can't read text on a white background. Not sure if there is a way round it.

Submitted by Adam Samec on Monday, November 16, 2020

Hello,

I have noticed the setting to announce time in regular intervals, such as every hour, that was available in the Date and time preferences is gone in Big Sur. That's quite a shame.

Submitted by Adam Samec on Monday, November 16, 2020

In reply to by Eileen

In macOS Catalina, the Voice Control feature has been introduced. Now, with Big Sur, it also supports VoiceOver commands. The exact commands phrasing can be learned under System Preferences > Accessibility > Voice Control by clicking on the "Commands" button and scrolling to the end of the commands table.

By the way, thanks Eileen for correcting me regarding the time announcements. It's indeed under the Dock and Menubar preferences.

I do not have this issue, - wonder why some users do, and some not I always had to interact with the browser, then arrowing right and left expands or collapses folders just like in Catalina, un-interacting with the browser and arrowing left twice brings me to the sidebar just as before. I have a 2016 MBP with 8 GB RAM and an SSD.

Ok, so with Quick Nav off arrowing right and left does not work the same as with Quick Nav on, I do need to use the VO key with the arrow keys if quick nav is off, I am used to keeping quick Nav enabled so I had not noticed the behavior.

Submitted by SplendidFault on Tuesday, November 17, 2020

If one, for example, tries to use first aid on any of their disks while in recovery mode, VoiceOver crashes as soon as they navigate to the sidebar to select a disk. Unfortunately, as of this writing, I could find no workarounds to circumvent this issue.