Hello, High Sierra
Today, Apple released the macOS 10.13 “High Sierra” update. As usual, I won’t cover the mainstream features for the most part, concentrating instead on accessibility.
Please remember to check the section about bugs to see if it’s worth upgrading. 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. In particular, users of the “most” punctuation setting should know that this setting has been removed, leaving just “none”, “some”, or “all”.
Braille users: the AppleVis team members doing testing with High Sierra are not heavy Braille users. Please remember that we can’t say how Braille works in this release at all, so upgrade at your own risk.
VoiceOver and Zoom haven’t changed much in this release, but there are a few things worth talking about.
Huge PDF Improvements
VoiceOver is, according to Apple, much better able to work with PDFs in High Sierra. If a PDF is accessible, VO will properly read tags and labels. It also better detects headings, links, and so on, and lets you navigate PDFs like webpages. The AppleVis team hasn’t been able to test this feature extensively, as our testers don’t do much with PDFs at all, but what we did test seemed very promising. Those of you who work a lot with PDFs: let us know your experiences in the comments.
VoiceOver Speaks in Tongues
VoiceOver can finally read multi-language content. When it detects a different language, it switches to a synthesizer in that language. This is great for webpages, emails, or documents you may have to work with that aren’t in your native language. Or maybe they are in your native tongue, and you find it annoying to force VoiceOver to or from English.
If you find something where the language is detected incorrectly or not at all, you can use the speech rotor to select an appropriate voice. Add voices you may need in the VoiceOver Utility > Speech section as normal.
The VO Utility has an expanded speech section now. You can use this to customize each language’s speech settings. Simply go to the section, hit the “add language” button, return to the table, and customize the new row in said table. You might want a much slower Spanish voice than your English one, or maybe you want to crank up the speed in German but leave English alone. You can do all this.
Note that manually switching to a foreign voice, rather than having VO do it on its own, still uses that voice’s settings. That is, if your English voice is at 80% and your French voice is at 40%, using the speech rotor to select that French voice will use the 40% speech rate you’d expect. Also note that you can only add one voice per language. That is, you can’t set up two Spanish voices and pick between them, you have to keep just one Spanish voice set up at a time.
Bettering the Braille
In iOS 11, Apple introduced improved support for braille displays. While we don’t have braille testers on our team, we can confirm that the same improvements have arrived on the Mac as part of today’s upgrade. Contracted braille users will be especially happy to get this news, as the experience has been greatly simplified and enhanced. Now, you can edit in contracted braille, without worrying about pausing too long and having your text translated, or expanding a word under your cursor to computer braille before you can edit it. In a way, Apple is making braille closer to the experience of a notetaker, where the contracted braille you feel is what you edit. At the same time, though, macOS is handling translation behind the scenes, meaning that the system is “seeing” the translated text it expects.
Rotor to the mistakes
The VoiceOver rotor now has an option to move by misspelled words, in addition to the rotor items you already have. If you rely on the rotor a lot, you’ll love this new way of spellchecking.
As with the old commands (vo-cmd-e and vo-cmd-shift-e), using this new rotor option will land you on the start of the word. You have to option-arrow to the end to get automatic suggestions, or right arrow to it before you can use the context menu to access suggestions and dictionary options.
A Quick Note on Quick Nav
Quick Nav has been changed a bit. The usual left and right arrows together will turn it on or off, but vo-q has been added to the mix. This keystroke toggles first-letter navigation, letting you change whether pressing keys with Quick Nav enabled will jump around or not. This setup has been a part of iOS for a while, so if you’re already used to it there, you’ll feel right at home with this change on the Mac.
Automagic Image Descriptions?
Also new to VoiceOver is something equally new to iOS 11: image descriptions. VoiceOver has been speaking the main objects in pictures since last year, but that was only for photos you’d stored in a Photos library. Now, you can press vo-shift-l while VO is on a picture to get a description, if the current app supports the feature. This even includes text recognition, letting you hear what’s in an image, even if it’s a screenshot or meme. Time will tell just how well this works in practice, but it’s great to see such a powerful feature being introduced, even if the artificial intelligence behind it seems to need more tweaking.
After some tests of this feature, it seems to work about as well as it does on iOS and have the same limitations. I searched Google for “pictures of dogs” and moved through the results by image. I got a few hits, such as “Labrador”, “husky”, “pug”, and a few others. Just as often, though, I was only told the sharpness or blurriness of the image. macOS did pick up the text “google” in Google’s logo, though. Importantly, I got better results once I turned my Mac’s screen brightness up, though the screen curtain didn’t seem to make a difference as it currently does on iOS.
Viewing the Past
The last feature is a little more minor, but no less useful: announcement history. Press vo-n once to access any notifications that are still on screen, as introduced in 10.12. Now, though, you can press vo-n once more to review any recent announcements VoiceOver made. Not all speech appears here, only status messages, like download announcements from Safari.
There aren’t many changes to accessibility tools in macOS this time around, just new features and additions. The big one you need to know about is in the speech rotor. Previously, vo-cmd-arrows would let you alter speech rate, pitch, and so on. Those options are all still there, but you need to add the shift key to your rotor commands. That is, vo-cmd-shift-arrows.
The regular vo-cmd-arrow commands are now reserved for the navigation rotor. This is a welcome change, as you can now take full advantage of the rotor’s power without needing to worry about Quick Nav or awkwardly locate the right vo-cmd command to move by list or link. It does, however, mean that we’ll all be re-training our fingers for a while.
Speaking of Quick Nav, remember the new feature above, where vo-q toggles first-letter navigation. If Quick Nav ever stops working right, check this setting first. It’s a feature, but it’s also a change in the way Quick Nav works, so I’m putting it in this section too.
A big change for anyone who does a lot of programming or writing is the total removal of the “most” punctuation setting. We now have “none”, “some”, and “all”. This means you can’t hear parentheses, semicolons, quotes, and other important punctuation symbols without also hearing every symbol. On a personal note, this one is a huge deal for me. I find that not knowing when something is parenthesized or if a semicolon is used makes things harder for me to proof-read. Even that word, proof-read, is spoken with no indication that I’ve included the hyphen. You can imagine how much more frustrating checking your work is if you need this kind of detail. If you rely on being able to pick up on this level of punctuation, but don’t want to use the “all” setting, you might consider waiting on this upgrade.
The other change worth talking about is Safari’s new automatic reader setting, which you can adjust from Safari’s preferences. I mention it here because it bit me a few times. I’d go to a website, not find the link or heading I expected, and be very confused. I finally realized the site had gone into Reader Mode on its own. This feature is disabled by default, but once you turn it on, remember that sites will all switch to Reader if Safari thinks they can. You can exclude sites if you want to, giving me enough flexibility that I find this to be one of my favorite additions to macOS. Still, it can be confusing when you seem to be missing parts of webpages, so remember to check your Reader status.
Bugs: the Squashed and the Nascent
High Sierra has its share of fixes, but it also has some new problems, as do all software releases. Let’s start with the good news.
High Sierra fixes the following accessibility bugs, according to the testing performed by the AppleVis team. Let us know if we missed any; we always love adding more fixes to these articles.
- VoiceOver feels snappier overall, though we acknowledge this may be due to installing the beta on blank drives or partitions.
- In Safari, text fields work far better. Specifically:
- Pressing enter on multi-line fields will always cause VoiceOver to say “new line” if character typing feedback is enabled.
- Bumping into the top or bottom of a text field will no longer speak the first or last line of the webpage.
- VoiceOver search commands (vo-f, vo-g, vo-shift-g) appear to work correctly in text fields now.
- Using cmd-semicolon to move to misspelled words works as it should.
- Using option-arrows to navigate by paragraph in multi-line text fields works. Note, though, that speech feedback is inaccurate while doing this.
- VoiceOver no longer seems to be as verbose when you unlock a Mac. Specifically, the “N system dialogs displayed” messages are far fewer to none.
- The delay seen when switching apps with a Nuance voice in use appears to be fixed.
- Since you cannot navigate conversation history with the arrow keys in the Messages app, VoiceOver no longer refers to this as an HTML content object. This should serve to differentiate when arrows will and won’t work.
Okay, here’s the bad news portion of the article. Below, I’ve listed all the High Sierra accessibility bugs the AppleVis team was able to find. Remember that these are bugs new to 10.13, not ones that existed in previous macOS versions. If you know of any we missed, please leave a comment so we can investigate further. Please also let us know if you find one of our bugs to not be a problem on your 10.13 system. Even if it’s still a bug, we can at least note that it doesn’t happen to everyone.
- If you write an email, vo-l will not read the current line. You must arrow up or down before this command starts working.
- you cannot click, or click with any modifier keys held down, while the Trackpad Commander is active. Note that we aren’t certain if this is new to 10.13.
- Siri fails to read back texts with VoiceOver enabled. You are prompted as to whether to send the message, but are not told what the message is. This bug may be present in 10.12.
- VoiceOver fails to identify attached files when composing emails. It says “embedded object”, but not the name of the file as it should.
- As noted previously, option-up and option-down in multi-line text fields in Safari moves correctly. However, VoiceOver’s feedback is wildly incorrect, speaking nothing like the text under the cursor and sometimes playing the “boundary” sound when the cursor is nowhere near a boundary.
- VoiceOver is sluggish when using the speech rotor (vo-cmd-shift-arrows) with Nuance voices.
- There is a vertical scroll bar to the left of a webpage if that page is in Reader mode. VoiceOver can move left from this scroll bar to the bottom of the page, even if cursor wrapping is off, and doing so can sometimes cause problems with navigation.
- Activating a link on a webpage while that page is in Reader mode can cause problems. The page that loads will not be properly read or navigated by VoiceOver until you toggle Reader off and, optionally, on again. Note that this does not always happen.
That’s what we know so far. As mentioned, if you have any changes, features, or bugs we missed, please leave a comment.