Memoirs of a Blind Switcher: 5 Years On

by John Panarese

It’s hard to believe that I have been a Mac user for nearly six years now. I look back on the original article I wrote on my early days as a switcher from Windows to the Mac, and I am truly amazed. I can’t believe how much time has passed, and I certainly am so proud and thrilled to have been a part of something that has progressed so quickly and so impressively. Indeed, if there is someone who is “truly a happy Mac user”, I surely fit the definition.

That’s right folks. VoiceOver on the Mac is still going strong. It wasn’t a “quick fix” Apple was legally “forced” to create to keep them from facing lawsuits from disability groups. It wasn’t a one-shot deal that would never see improvements. Apple hasn’t decided to throw it by the wayside because us blind folks make up such a small segment of a potential market. It hasn’t become stagnant or left behind as Apple has come out with new operating systems.

So many of the detractors and critics said all those kinds of things over the years. But, after Tiger came Leopard, and after Leopard, Snow Leopard was released. And this summer, Lion will become the latest operating system Apple will produce for the Mac. Through it all, VoiceOver has continued to evolve and improve, and I have no doubts at all that this trend will only continue. Apple is committed to accessibility, and it’s becoming harder and harder for the doubters and detractors to make the claims of the past, especially as the iPhone became accessible and we, as blind people, have access to the iPad and all of the latest iPods.

Here I am with my Mac Book having been replaced by a Mac Book Pro in 2009, and I own an iPhone 3GS, an original iPad, and a 2nd generation Apple TV as well. I also still use my 4th generation iPod Nano just about every day. Yes, as Apple has expanded the accessibility in their devices, it seems their products have found their way into my home. I don’t deny it in the least that I have become an Apple "fan boy".

The reality is, however, I feel that I have good reason for that status. When a company does so much with their products alone, they should be commended and encouraged by both buying their products and saying positive things about those products. On top of that, though, as a blind person, in a world where we are used to paying extra for whatever accessibility we can get, how can one not want to purchase products that have accessibility out of the box and free of charge? No, folks, there is no “blind tax” when it comes to Apple. So, call me “fan boy” or “Apple apologist” all you like. I don’t mind it one bit.

When it comes specifically to VoiceOver on the Mac, what aspect that has continued to amaze and impress me has been how Apple has kept making things easier and better for us. From Tiger to Leopard and to Snow Leopard, the improvements to accessibility on the Mac have been truly remarkable. In the beginning when Apple was criticized for not having their own applications accessible, such as iTunes, it’s incredible for me to think back and recall how they have systematically made everything on the Mac work with VoiceOver. Some people used to say that paying for a Windows screen reader was still a “better deal” because they could, at least, utilize all of the applications that came as part of the system they purchased. Well, that point is no longer a valid one any longer. From Address Book to iCal, iTunes, Text Edit, Safari to Apple Mail, all of the applications that come with a new Mac can all be used by a blind person.

As in my first article, I am not going to get overly technical nor am I going to try to describe everything. Between access to the Mac, and iDevices, there is simply too much that I could talk about. For the sake of this piece, I am going to primarily discuss the Mac and VoiceOver, without getting into technical details. I basically want to make the point that after the release of OS 10.4 Tiger and the “birth” of Voiceover, our access to the Mac as blind people is equal, if not better than it is in the Windows environment.

Word processing, email and web browsing are still the three major functions the vast majority of users continue to utilize the most on their computers. VoiceOver has always given the blind access to these features on the Mac since Tiger, but this accessibility as only grown and diversified over the years. Whether it has come in Apple applications, such as their iWork productivity suite or in a variety of third party applications, the blind Mac user now is able to do just about anything they desire on the Mac in those three major areas.

At the time I wrote my original piece, internet browsing was certainly lacking compared to doing so on Windows. Yes, in Tiger, we could access the web and surf well enough, but web navigation, in particular, was not exactly comparable to doing so in the Windows environment.

With Snow Leopard, however, as far as I am concerned, I find web browsing on the Mac to be superior in so many ways. The added functionality provided by additional keyboard commands for navigation or the choice between DOM or Group navigation modes has matched that of any Windows screen reader, as one can move around a webpage by header, form field, links and other elements just as smoothly as one can do so with Window-Eyes, JAWS, System Access or any other Windows screen reader. Additionally, if you have access to the multi-touch, glass trackpad on the latest Apple laptops or the Magic Track Pad, because VoiceOver does not change the layout of a webpage as Windows screen readers do, your web experience is only enhanced by the simple fact that you can derive a visual representation in your mind by literally “feeling” your way around a website to determine how it is presented to a sighted person. To be honest, this is a particular aspect of my Mac Book Pro that still blows my mind. Using the trackpad, I can jump to parts of a site by just touching the screen when I get to it, and the array of VoiceOver gestures that are a part of Snow Leopard gives the blind Mac user such a full and comprehensive web browsing experience.

To supplement Text Edit, which is the word processing application that comes as a part of OS X, we now have plenty of choices out there. Pages, the word processing application that is part of Apple’s iWork09 productivity suite and can read and save in Microsoft Word formats, is a very robust word processing program that is accessible via VoiceOver, and there are other third party applications that one can use as well, such as Bean, Nisus Writer or the word processor in Open Office. Spreadsheets, even in Microsoft Excel format, are also now accessible to the blind Mac user with the iWork’s Numbers application, the spreadsheet in Open Office, and a third party application called, Tables. Even presentation software like Microsoft Power Point, is accessible with the KeyNote application in iWork09.

The proverbial beat only goes on in so many other areas for the blind Mac user. So many third party developers have made their software accessible to the blind on the Mac to give us just as many options as a sighted person. Whether it’s for making DVDs, ripping CDs, blogging, recording music or even OCR, the level of accessibility has taken leaps and bounds in conjunction with that of VoiceOver itself. DVD Remaster (for making DVDs and more), Mars Edit (blogging software), Max (for ripping CDs and converting audio files), Abby FineReader Express (OCR software), iBank (financial software), Olearia (for reading Daisy books), and Apples Garage Band (for making music), are just some examples of applications that are all VoiceOver compatible. I think back to the early days and all of the criticisms and comments about ones experience on the Mac “lacking” or “missing” this or that, and I can’t believe how far we have come. I couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface if I tried to touch on all of the kinds of applications that are out there that are either fully accessible or truly useable by the blind Mac user. This, as far as I can tell, is only going to keep happening as Apple’s commitment to accessibility is echoed and encouraged within the Mac developer community via the built in accessibility features in Coco, the native programing language for the Mac.

I have been really happy and satisfied with the way VoiceOver has drawn more and more switchers in recent years. This has come, despite of what I make no bones about calling “deliberate efforts” by some to discourage or “scare” potential users from trying the Mac. The introduction of accessibility to the iPhone and iPod Nano and Touch, , and its inclusion in the iPad has only had the same “halo” effect as has occurred in the sighted community. More and more blind people are trying or investigating the Mac and I believe this trend is only going to keep occurring. Apple’s continued development of VoiceOver and exposure to potential users is simply going to entice and draw new users as time goes on, and those users will, as I have done, recommend the Mac to others.

Besides having the accessibility as part of the operating system and not having to pay for it, the stability, reliability and security of the Mac compared to any of the given flavors of Windows surely makes switching a welcomed option for the blind. No, I don’t miss inexplicable crashes, viruses or the numerous other headaches that came in my full-time Windows days. I only now use Windows to just keep up my knowledge and screen reader skills at this point, as I can do EVERYTHING I need to do on a daily basis with my Mac. It honestly takes me only one renewed experience with Windows and dealing with the numerous frustrations and issues one encounters to cause me to be overwhelmingly thankful for my Mac.

As additional enhancements that makes using VoiceOver even easier and more flexible for the blind Mac user, the introduction of Keyboard, Numpad and Trackpad commanders in Snow Leopard have countered the early criticisms of VoiceOver requiring too many key presses at once to accomplish commands. Now, one can map commonly used commands to the numeric keypad of their keyboard or specific key combinations that are defined by the user, as well as adding custom gestures to the multi-touch trackpad. The level of customizability in VoiceOver itself has grown so much, but these three tools can be used to make tasks so easy and intuitive for both the new user coming over from Windows and the experienced Mac user alike. I’m not going to go into any specifics here, as that will really go beyond the scope of this piece, but there is plenty of information on the Apple website under their accessibility and voice over pages that describes these features. Suffice it to say, though, that one can no longer make the claim that VoiceOver is not “easy to use” because you have to press so many keys simultaneously to operate it.

In addition, the ability to connect a variety of refreshable Braille displays to both a Mac or an iDevice has brought a whole new world for the Braille user. These can be USB or Bluetooth displays on the Mac and Bluetooth displays for the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. For instance, I often use my BrailleNote BT32 in conjunction with my Mac or my iPhone when I have a need to do so. There are over 25 different models and types of displays that are currently supported by Apple, and this number will only increase as time passes.

What is also different from my personal perspective is the level of information and resources out there. In the early days of Tiger, us “pioneers” really had little to access as far as tutorials or podcasts or basic help. We learned a lot by just trying it and discussing our experiences within the small community of blind Mac users. Tips and tricks were discovered and then shared, and we worked together to help one another and encourage each other along.

At this point, besides this site, there are a lot of places where one can find information on using VoiceOver on the Mac. This ranges from tutorials, documentation and demonstration podcasts. A lot of people have done so much to help educate potential and even us veteran users by taking the time to make information available. Every day, it seems that I hear about or discover more and more resources, and the blind Mac user really can get all the help and assistance they require by just asking around or doing searches on Google. This is a LONG way from how it was when I wrote that original piece about switching to the Mac almost six years ago..

What has not changed is my early advice to those coming over from Windows to the Mac. I still hear the same sorts of comments and am asked the same types of questions. So, I’m going to reiterate what I said earlier. The thing to keep in mind, however, is that the overall state of accessibility on the Mac has definitely improved since my original piece, and the rewards of switching to the Mac are a lot more sweeter and advantageous than ever before.

First off, you cannot approach using VoiceOver on the Mac expecting, wishing or thinking you are going to have the same exact experience as you did in Windows. You have to leave your Windows mindset behind entirely. You are not using Windows or your Windows screen reader. You are not using a Windows computer. OS X and the Mac are not the same as Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7 on a PC. Yes, VoiceOver conceptually does the same thing as a Windows screen reader in that it gives the blind user access to their computer with speech, Braille or both outputs, but the approaches and techniques are different.

I can’t tell you how many times I hear or read the question on the various Mac and VoiceOver lists in which someone asks how they do something specific on the Mac in the same way as they do in JAWS. Again, the problem is, as I said above, one cannot approach VoiceOver and the Mac with the same mindset and expectation set as they have in using their Windows screen reader. It just doesn’t work that way, and to go into using the Mac wanting things to be exactly how it was for you in JAWS or Window-Eyes is only going to lead to frustrations and confusion. Throw the Windows world out the window, put your frame of mind into a Mac way of thinking and learn VoiceOver as if you are learning something new. That is, from my personal experience, the best approach for a new Mac user.

Apple has, in some instances, tried to help the blind switcher by having a few features or concepts of VoiceOver be similar to that of a Windows screen reader. For example, many new Mac users have difficulty in how text is spoken in relation to the cursor. In Windows, the character is announced to the right of the cursor, while on the Mac, the character the cursor passes over when it moves is what is spoken. This can be quite confusing to the new Mac user when it comes to editing text in both deleting or inserting material. In Snow Leopard, Apple added the option of having the Windows method of how text and cursor position are related in the Verbosity settings of the VoiceOver Utility.

Is Apple perfect? Is accessibility perfect on the Mac? Of course not. I would never claim otherwise. There are still areas that, to me, are a little “weaker” on the Mac compared to Windows when it comes to overall accessibility. This includes Braille translation and embossing, and OCR options. Furthermore, there are also third party applications that still do not offer accessibility for the blind, and as with anything else, if you look hard enough, you can simply find weaknesses and faults in whatever area you wish.

But when you come right down to it as far as third party programs stand, this is no different than one encounters in Windows. Additionally,, while we don’t have a Duxbury, there are still applications available for Braille translation that work well enough on the Mac. Similarly, with there being a Mac version of the iPal product from ABIC available and Serotek coming out with a Mac version of their DocuScan program, I believe those areas will demonstrate great accessibility gains. This, in my opinion, will only lead to other companies choosing to invest in developing Mac versions of their products as time goes on. The more blind people who switch to the Mac, the more attractive the market for such things will be.

So, overall, if you are considering a switch from Windows to the Mac, now is surely a great time to do so. The future for VoiceOver on the Mac is as bright as ever before, and you will find that your level of accessibility is just as diverse and robust as it is with your Windows screen reader. As a bonus, you will be leaving the extra cost of purchasing and maintaining your Windows screen reader behind, as well as viruses, malware and all of the various other troublesome aspects of Windows. It’s just a win/win situation for you in the end.