Getting VoiceOver Help on Your Mac

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team


When you first get a Mac, and are learning VoiceOver, it can be hard to remember the myriad commands available. Some are pretty easy, like control-option-w to read the current word. Some are quite complex or seldom used, such as control-option-command-f5 to move the mouse pointer to where VoiceOver is focused. Then there are the core concepts, like interacting, moving around dialogs, getting to menus, and plenty more. So, I wanted to offer a guide that does not explain most of the commands and concepts, but rather tells you where to go if you need help. Mailing lists, books, online resources, and cheat sheets are great, but there are powerful help facilities built right into every Mac, just a keystroke or two away at any time. The trick is knowing how to access them.

Keyboard Keys and Layout

First, let's be sure you know where to find the keys you will be using for this. I will assume you know where the letters are, but the modifiers (control, option, command, and function) can be harder to figure out and memorize.

On any Apple keyboard, such as the Apple Wireless Keyboard that comes with most Mac desktops or the keyboard built into any MacBook, the order of the bottom row of keys is, from left to right:

  • function
  • control
  • option
  • command
  • space
  • command
  • option
  • arrow keys

The VoiceOver keys, control and option, are used to control VoiceOver, hence the name. Often, you will see commands like "vo-f"; that just means control-option-f. Again, the control and option keys are next to each other, the two middle keys in the group of four to the left of the spacebar. There are no VoiceOver keys on the right side of the spacebar because there is no control key there.

On non-Apple keyboards, things get more interesting. Since I have no way of knowing the layout of your keyboard, I will instead explain which non-Apple keys map to what on the Mac.

  • Control is the same.
  • The Windows key is the command key.
  • The alt key is the option key.

On many non-Apple keyboards, the usual order is control, Windows, alt, space, alt, Windows, applications, control. If your keyboard has that layout, then the VoiceOver keys will be found on either side of the Windows key.

Now that we are on the same page as far as where the keys are, let's start pressing some!

The Help Menu

Control-option-h is perhaps the most useful command you have when you need help. It offers five options:

  • User Guide, which opens up the macOS Help Viewer to show the VoiceOver manual
  • Commands Help Menu, which is discussed in more detail below
  • Keyboard Help, again discussed in its own section
  • Sounds Help Menu, which is a menu of every sound VoiceOver can produce and a textual description of what that sound represents
  • Quick Start Tutorial, the tutorial that covers the basics of using VoiceOver. When you first ran VoiceOver on your new Mac, this tutorial was offered, and here is a way to go through it again.

Key Description Mode

Perhaps the easiest way to check what a keystroke does, or simply practice keystrokes or trackpad commands, is to press buttons and see what happens. Fortunately, VoiceOver allows you to do just that. To enter this mode, which VoiceOver calls "Keyboard Help," press control-option-k. When you are in this mode, no VoiceOver commands will be executed, and most system commands are stopped as well. Only VoiceOver commands are actually described, though. For example, if you are in Text Edit and enter Keyboard Help, pressing control-option-w will tell you that what you just pressed reads the current word. Pressing command-s, on the other hand, will cause VoiceOver to say the keys you pressed, but will not say that those keys are to save the current document, since command-s is not a VoiceOver command. Still, this is a perfect mode to just press keys and key combinations to see what does what, and, for the most part, you can't hurt anything because almost no commands will go through. When you are done, just hit the escape key (the top left key on most keyboards) and your Mac will return to normal.

Keyboard Help is a misleading term, as it is even more powerful than that. If you use the Trackpad Commander, this mode will also describe, but not run, any touch gestures you care to test out. It will do the same for any other Commanders you have set up. Quick Nav is the only exception; to hear descriptions of what the arrow keys do, you must enable Quick Nav, then turn on Keyboard Help. Even then, you will not be told what single keys (such as H for headings) do.

Commands Help Menu (control-option-h-h)

Hold down the control and option keys, then hit h twice. You will be placed in a new menu which lists every function of which VoiceOver is capable, sorted by category. Use up or down arrow to move through the different categories, right arrow to expand the desired category, then up or down to browse the items. Left arrow will close an open category and move you back to the main menu. While you are at this main menu, you can also start typing the particular command you are looking for. If, for example, you know you want the command to copy the last spoken phrase to the clipboard, just start typing "copy" and any commands matching that search will be shown. There is no need to press enter after typing, the search happens with every letter you press. To clear the search, simply hit delete (usually found on the number row, all the way to the right). To execute any command you find in this set of menus, you need only press enter. To close the menu, press escape.

Searching the Menu Bar

While this is not specific to VoiceOver, it is worth mentioning as it can be a huge time-saver. Most every Mac app includes menus (File, Edit, Window, and others), each of which has commands. Often, these commands have keystrokes bound to them, such as command-q for quit or command-s for save. If you cannot recall a particular keystroke, though, or if the option you want does not have an assigned keystroke and you haven't assigned your own, , you can just run a quick search. How?

  • Press control-option-m to move to the Menu Bar, then navigate to the Help menu. Usually, you can just press H, but if another menu also starts with H you may need to type more of the word "help". Alternatively, simply use left or right arrow to move to the Help menu. Once you are on it, press down arrow.
  • VoiceOver should say, "Search. Search result, interactive." At this point, just start typing the name of the command you are looking for. Don't press enter, just type some or all of the command's name.
  • Once you have typed what you want, press down arrow to examine the results. First will be a section of matches to items in the current app's menus; once you hear the one you want, simply press enter. After that list will be matches in the Mac's built-in help; pressing enter on one of those will open the relevant section in the macOS Help Viewer. Note that this help is not VoiceOver-specific.
  • If you do not find the command you want, or wish to abandon the search, just press escape (you may need to do that a few times) and the menu, then the menu bar, will close and you will be back in the main window of the app you started from.

Other Resources

As mentioned above, the VoiceOver Help Menu lets you open local documentation in the Help Viewer.

Of course, AppleVis has plenty of resources to help new Mac users who are just starting out. If you get stuck at any point, don't hesitate to ask your questions on our forums and someone will be glad to try to help you out. Finally, the most popular email list for visually impaired Mac users I know of is Macvisionaries, which is a moderately high-traffic list but has a lot of very knowledgeable people ready to help you out. Finally, if you are on Twitter, feel free to ask questions of @VOTips and I will try to answer. The @VOTips timeline also includes many helpful tricks for Mac and iOS users which you may find useful.



The guide on this page has generously been submitted by a member of the AppleVis community. As AppleVis is a community-powered website, we make no guarantee, either express or implied, of the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this guide.

1 Comment

Re: Getting VoiceOver Help on Your Mac

Thanks for this. I'm currently putting together another Braille cheat sheet for a sister of mine who is a VoiceOver user. She's had her Mac for a few months now, but is relatively new to computers in general for reasons I won't go into. These guides have been very helpful; keep 'em coming.