eXtensions - Wednesday 11 October 2017

eXtensions - The Wednesday File (26): Accessibility Preferences in macOS High Sierra (1) - General and Vision

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By Graham K. Rogers


There have been some changes to Accessibility Preferences in macOS, High Sierra (10.13) which provide settings aimed at assisting the disabled. The most obvious change is with the removal of the Dwell sub-section for head- and eye-tracking, and some reorganisation. Dwell functions have been incorporated into the Keyboard section.

In the current version of Accessibility there are five areas of assistance: General, Vision, Media, Hearing and Interacting. The functions are displayed in a window to the left. There are 13 items.

  • General: General

  • Vision: VoiceOver, Zoom, Display and Speech.

  • Media: Descriptions and Captions.

  • Hearing: Audio (TTY which was new in Sierra is not shown).

  • Interacting: Dictation, Siri (new in Accessibility), Keyboard, Mouse & Trackpad, and Switch Control

As each item in the left side window is highlighted, so controls are shown in the main panel. At the bottom of every pane is a single checkbox: Show Accessibility status in menu bar.

With the number of items in Accessibility, I have split this into three sections. Part 1 (here) covers General and Vision. Part 2 examines Media, and Hearing, while Part 3 covers the more complex Interacting using Dictation, Siri, Keyboard, Mouse, and Switch Control panels.



This first section has only one item: General. This reveals a panel in which several control items are shown each with a checkbox. When a box is checked, that item will be included in the list on a quick access panel. This appears unchanged from the General option in Sierra.

The panel is displayed (whether System Preferences is in use or not) over any application, when the key combination Command + Option + F5 is pressed. When a Mac with the Touch Controls is used, The panel allows any function then selected to operate immediately. For example, the last in the list is Invert Display Colors. If that checkbox is selected, the display colors are instantly changed.


Items in the panel (depending on those selected in the General section) include Zoom, Voice Over, Mouse & Keyboard (Enable: Sticky Keys, Slow Keys, Mouse Keys Accessibility Keyboard [new], and Switch Control [also new]), and Display. For more information on each of these items, see the sections below.


The four items in this section are VoiceOver, Zoom, Display and Speech.

VoiceOver provides spoken input for those who need assistance with sound commands. The panel has a simple text description of the purpose of VoiceOver. This has been updated: "Provides spoken and brailled (sic) descriptions of item on the computer screen and provides control of the computer through the use of the keyboard." Two buttons available are Open VoiceOver Training and Open VoiceOver Utility.

There is a single checkbox: Enable VoiceOver. This may also be turned ON using the Command + F5 keys. (If a Mac with Touch display is used, the Fn key needs to be pressed to reveal the F5 key - an awkward combination). A panel appears and a voice reads out information. There is access to a series of VoiceOver training screens, with a spoken commentary. The screens are made available either through a "Learn More" button on the screen, or by pressing the Space Bar.

Near the bottom of the VoiceOver preference screen are two buttons: Open VoiceOver Training; and Open VoiceOver Utility. The training application reveals the same large screen seen with "Learn VoiceOver" in the panel (above). The system voice reads out the training pages and talks the user through the operations. The voice was a little fast for my liking (certainly too fast for a non-native speaker), so I adjusted the speed down from Normal in the Speech panel in the Vision section. With the VoiceOver learning screens it might take a couple of runs through to grasp the full idea.

The other button opens the VoiceOver Utility panel (similar to System Preferences in appearance) with 10 separate functions, each with their own fine-tuning sections: General, Verbosity, Speech, Navigation, Web, Sound, Visuals, Commanders, Braille and Activities. There are a considerable number of options available within the settings, allowing a high degree of tuning for those who need assistance. Some may require additional input or devices attached.

Zoom provides control of the ways zoom may be used. At the top is a checkbox (off by default on my computer) allowing a series of key commands to be used:

Option + Command + 8 zooms in and out;
Option + Command + = zooms in;
Option + Command + - zooms out;
Option + Command + \ toggles smooth images (when off, jagged edges appear).

There is a further option of "Toggle keyboard focus following . . .". On my MacBook Pro this was marked as Unassigned and the key command space was greyed out. This may be added using the Shortcuts (Accessibility) pane in System Preferences > Keyboard, where it is also marked as Unassigned.

Accessibility - Zoom

Below the key command options is a checkbox to allow the scroll gesture (e.g. using 2 fingers on a trackpad) to be used with a key to zoom in and out smoothly. The default key is Control, but Option and Command are also available as before. Users may also specify another combination. As an example, I changed the default to Option + Control; but users should consider carefully before modifying in this way.

Three other checkboxes below are to turn on Smooth images (wise when zooming); and "Zoom follows the keyboard focus". A new checkbox shows, "Speak items under the pointer" and is followed by a button that allows the action to be specified when

  • Only when zoomed, or
  • Always
In conjunction with this new option is a slider to control the delay (Short-Long) when this option is checked.

A button below these checkboxes allows options for the Zoom style. This is allows either a full screen zoom or "Picture-in-Picture" when a small panel displays a section of screen zoomed, with the surrounding part not zoomed.

Alongside is a button marked, Options, which opens a panel with controls for zoom magnification and for how the screen behaves during zoom. This panel differs depending on whether Fullscreen or Picture-in-Picture is used as the zoom method.

Display was revised in Sierra (macOS 10.12) with additional settings and a minor redesign of the panel. The settings are to assist those with vision problems. There are six checkboxes: Invert colors; Use grayscale; Differentiate without Color; Reduce Motion, Increase contrast; and Reduce Transparency. The "Invert" feature (previously called, "White on Black") may also be activated via the General panel (Command + Option + F5). The key combination of Control + Option + Command + 8 no longer works unless the relevant box is checked in the Accessibility section of System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts.

Accessibility - Display

Below the checkboxes are two sliders: Display Contrast (Normal to Maximum); and Cursor Size (Normal to Large). The largest cursor is about 1" from end to end. Near the bottom of the panel is a button marked Open Display Preferences.

A checkbox below is marked, Shake mouse pointer to locate. When the cursor os moved back and forth, the arrow becomes larger and can be seen more easily.

At the bottom of the panel is a button to open access to the Display Preferences panel.

Speech is aimed at those who have vision problems. The top of the panel is dominated by a button with the currently selected voice shown. The default is Alex, which a few years back had some interesting inclusions that made reading a text sound quite realistic, with good pauses for punctuation and even the sound of a breath every once in a while.

Clicking on the button reveals other voices that are available to the user with Customize at the bottom. This reveals a panel with some 104 voices shown including the Novelty voices (e.g. Deranged) that used to be available in the default installation. When any voice is highlighted in the list, a Play button is available so the user can hear a sample of the voice. When playing, the button changes to Stop. When a voice is selected, the download size of files required to install a new voice is displayed just above the Play button.

Accessibility - Voices

Selecting a new voice indicates that the necessary data will be downloaded: this begins when the user clicks OK at the bottom of the panel. An example download (Karen) was some 3.9MB. I also noticed in the first use of this panel that some of the voices had an Advanced content download checked. The downloads started when I closed the panel, but not all were successful (this will depend on connections).

Several of the voices available are for specific languages, like French, German and others. I tried the Thai language voice, now Kanya (previously Narissa), which reads English in a voice that those in Thailand will instantly recognize. The voice also reads Thai, which an English voice (like Alex) cannot.

Below the voice selection button on the main panel is a slider for speed (Slow-Normal-Fast). In practice, some users may find a slower speed assists understanding, particularly for children or non-native speakers. Below the slider is a Play button to give the user a sample of the selected voice.

A second part of the pane is to announce alerts or when attention is needed. This is now controlled by a checkbox. When selected, an Options button is live. A panel allows a voice other than the System voice to be used and which words should be announced. The default is the name of the application, but others are available. The user may also edit the phrase list and add a customized warning. There seems to be no restriction on the use of profanity here.

A final checkbox on the pane is to allow selected text to be spoken when a key combination is used. The default is Option + Esc, but I have this set up as Command + Option + S. Making a different selection is possible by using the Change Key button to the right. In some applications, a speech option may be available (Safari used the Edit menu) to announce highlighted text. Some older third party applications may not have the ability to use the System voice.

See also:

The Wednesday File (26): Accessibility Preferences in macOS High Sierra (2) - Media, and Hearing

The Wednesday File (26): Accessibility Preferences in macOS High Sierra (3) - Interacting (Dictation, Siri, Keyboard, Mouse & Trackpad, and Switch Control)

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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