Mac OS X accessibility: A success story

Over the past couple of years, accessibility options have become more widely available than just on the Windows platform. Since GNOME 2.18, Orca has become part of the desktop package, offering a way for some distributions to be installed with some speech guidance.

Also, Apple entered the same field during the Mac OS 10.4 Tiger timeframe and offered the VoiceOver screen reader as part of the operating system. This is not new, since Mac OS X has since moved on to Leopard 10.5. But I recently had the first chance to play with it, and I must say I am deeply impressed! Once you turn on a Mac that you just bought, it prompts you that if you can’t see the screen, you can press Cmd+F5 to turn on VoiceOver. From that point on, it talks you through the Setup Assistant using a clear, very intelligible voice named Alex. This speech engine is built with a “breathing” algorithm making it sound even more natural than other current TTS engines. Once I had mine set up, I was wirelessly connected and ready to go.

For the fun of it, I also booted from the DVD. This boots a copy of the operating system and automatically launches the installer. However, even here you can press Cmd+F5 to get instant VoiceOver speech and full access to the installer and other utilities such as the Disk Utility that Apple offers for maintenance.

By comparison, on Windows, only part of the installer is accessible, and then only on English language versions of the operating system. And, it uses a voice called Microsoft Sam on Windows XP, and an only slightly better sounding female voice whose name escapes me right now for Vista. The part of the installer that, even under Vista, still runs in text mode, is not accessible at all. So disk partitioning, formatting etc., are all without speech support. The alternative way many of us use is an answer file that sucks in all the information and then lets the installer run automatically.

On Linux, the story can be slightly better depending on the distribution and the version of that distribution you’re using. Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron was pretty good in that you only had to press a rather straight-forward series of keystrokes, but in right order, to get a talking installer. Ubuntu 8.10 made a huge lapse backwards unfortunately, again requiring the use of the command line, sudo, Ubiquity and the hope that you typed it all right while you had to quit Orca to get it running with administrative privileges.

I haven’t looked at the new Open Solaris, which is supposed to also have an accessible installer, so cannot comment on its story. Other distributions require other forms of blind-flying to get to a talking or brailling installer, which is nothing for the faint of heart.

Both Windows and Linux also suffer from the additional risk that the hardware in the computer you’re trying to install them on is not recognized. In worst case, the sound card won’t be recognized, leaving you completely in the dark. There, binding the operating system to specific hardware, like Apple does, has a clear advantage: They know what’s in their boxes and can make sure it always runs.

And again, nothing is as easy as pressing a single keystroke to get speech.

And the wwealth of applications that is already accessible on Mac OS X is breathtaking as well. Not only programs that come with the operating system or the additional applications package such as TextEdit, Mail, Safari, QuickTime and iTunes, but also third-party applications often used, or needed, by blind users are accessible. One is Skype, which is the preferred Voice-Over-IP application used by the blind community. Another is OpenOffice, which, starting at version 3.0, is a Cocoa application and has full VoiceOver support.

On Linux, Skype, for example, isn’t accessible yet. This is one of the most frequently asked-for applications, so it is hoped that with the migration from Corba to D-Bus for the accessibility infrastructure, this will become easier to do, but for now, the GNOME desktop accessibility story definitely misses out on this important application.

On Windows, Narrator is not even enough to get you to a point where you can download NVDA. So if you have to reinstall, make sure you put a portable version onto a USB pen drive before so you have good access to your system once it’s up and running.

In comparing these three platforms, it can be said that Apple took their time to come to the accessibility party, but what they came up with simply works great out of the box. In my opinion, this is a real alternative to Windows. So if you think about buying a new notebook or desktop computer in the near future, why not walk up to a Mac shop and take a look at the models there?

For the Mozilla story, this underlines that we better continue our effort soon to get Firefox accessible on the Mac so people can take advantage of things like WebVisum there, too.

If you’d like to listen to some demos of VoiceOver support on the Mac, there is a great three-part podcast series on Blind Cool Tech made by Mike Arrigo that is definitely worth the time listening to!


9 thoughts on “Mac OS X accessibility: A success story

  1. Whenever I’ve installed Vista, no part of the installation has run in text mode, and partitioning etc. is all done in a GUI.

    I must admit I wasn’t paying attention to accessibility features at that point though.

  2. The only knowledge I have of this Vista installer is from sighted people I sat next to when they installed Vista. And one of the things said was that even for Vista, this first part still looked like text mode. If that’s not the case, and that person simply didn’t look closely enough, I’d correct that statement of course. 🙂

  3. The only part of the Vista installer that’s text mode doesn’t require user interaction, I think. It’s just the “loading files” part.

    I’m also not convinced that that many people actually install Windows at all. Most sales are pre-installed, and boot to a somewhat (though not very) usable desktop.

  4. Considering that iWork isn’t fully accessible and Openoffice is more robust this is great news. However I would like to see Neo Office be accessible. As far as Mozilla goes it would be nice to see Camino support with Voice Over. For the record Opera has some support for voice over but not to the extent as safari.

  5. I wouldn’t hold my breath on Neo Office support for a couple of reasons. The first being that it is written in a java toolkit with no accessibility features whatsoever, regardless of platform. The second being that, as Neo Office was basically an Aqua port of Openoffice–which now has its own native version–I don’t necessarily see the focus being on Neo Office anymore. Rather, the focus is likely to move to Openoffice, as it now runs native on the three major platforms.

  6. @Siddharth Agarwal
    Oh, you’d be surprised just how many people install Windows eventually, blind or not. Eventually, it becomes easier to simply reinstall the system rather than clean out the myriad of excess files, registry keys, etc that add up.
    The problem with an accessible Windows install is two fold. The first being that yes, part of the Windows installer does still run in text mode or does not actually run in Windows itself. The partitioning screen of the Windows Vista installer is a good example, as it does run a GUI but it is not running a live copy of Vista. Rather, it’s a scaled down installer GUI that has one purpose, and one purpose only: to get Windows installed to the hard disk. It does not run most of the Windows services, and it does not load any Drivers, including those for Audio cards. So, in addition to having difficulties in making a screen reader for this portion of the installer, your audio card wouldn’t even work, whether Vista has a driver for it by default or not. No, I’m not making excuses for Microsoft, far from it. It is well overdue for them to address this issue head on.
    The second issue has nothing at all to do with Microsoft, however, and everything to do with OEMs. Many of them provide, not a Windows install CD, but a system restore disk. These can be anything from a customized Windows installation disk to little more than a copy of Norton Ghost with a partition image that gets restored to your hard drive after you answer a few questions in text mode. Microsoft may eventually make the Windows install accessible, I hope they do. But that assumes that you’re going to have a standard install CD or DVD, and that is usually not the case with the major OEMs.

  7. I must say it is nice to finally have OS X be known for the accessible system it is. The amount of FUD out there about it is staggering, and it’s nice to see favorable articles now and then.

  8. I think the reason that Microsoft gave me when I suggested that they include audio support in WinPE (the Windows Preinstallation Environment) was that there would need to be support for scads and scads of audio drivers–which, it occurs to me, could be worked around, could it not? Video, they’re claiming, is more easily handled with a generic VGA driver. I’ve thought about throwing together something not as involved as the Windows Automated Installation Kit, but with the ability to generate an answer file with a simpler interface (at least with Vista and the upcoming Windows 7). Microsoft has gone away from Windows XP internally, which might make it difficult for me to get at a build to support that–but I’m wondering what the demand would be for an answer file generator tool to at least marginally improve the installation accessibility story on Windows which seems to be the worst of the three, and this from a Microsoft employee.

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