April 2013 Issue  Volume 14  Number 4

Operating Systems

Series: Mac, PC, or Both: Choices for Blind and Visually Impaired Computer Users

Part II: Mac and Me: Using My MacBook Air with VoiceOver

In my previous article in the March 2013 issue, I explained the differences between the various MacBook computers from Apple and provided some basic information about using VoiceOver, Apple's on-board screen reader. In this article, I discuss VoiceOver further, including the ins and outs of using it with some basic applications. For additional information on learning to use Mac apps, check out the resources at the end of the first article.

When starting with any device or computer, don't expect to learn everything in one day. Learning my MacBook was a rollercoaster ride. I would be happy that I'd accomplished a task and then would have difficulty with something else. For example, I opened the e-mail program for the first time and was pleased to see that my e-mail was working. Somehow, though, 392 previously read e-mail messages from my Gmail account were in my Inbox. (Since Macs use a similar menu bar to PCs, I went to the Edit menu, activated the "Select All" option, and hit the Backspace key since there is no Delete key on a MacBook Air.)


On the Mac, there is frequently more than one way to accomplish a task. The VoiceOver Quick Start Tutorial provides a good way to learn navigation techniques and how to interact with tables, forms, and more. It is activated by typing Control + Option + Command + F8. This tutorial contains a great deal of information, so if it's a bit overwhelming, don't do it all at one time. There is no limit to how many times the tutorial can be accessed. Since there are many VoiceOver commands, it can get confusing. A full list of commands can be found by typing Control + Option + HH. The commands list is broken down into several categories, including Navigation, General, and Text. VoiceOver Help can be accessed by typing Control + Option + H.

The VoiceOver Keys

For the majority of the VoiceOver commands, Control + Option, which are known as the VoiceOver keys (VO keys), need to be held down along with other keys. For example, to activate the Menu bar, include the letter "M" in the command.

There have been times when I thought I had typed the correct command, but nothing happened. However, when I tried a slightly different command, it worked. For example, I was reviewing a list of files and typed VO + Down Arrow with no success. I changed the down arrow to a right arrow, and that worked. There are situations where Windows uses left and right arrows, but for the Mac, the up and down arrows are used. One example is reading letter by letter in QuickNav, a navigation option which will be discussed later in this article.

The VoiceOver Utility

The VoiceOver Utility is similar to any other screen reader's control panel. It can be accessed by typing VO + F8. When the screen loads, there is a table with many options, including Verbosity, Web, and Commanders (similar to hot keys). Especially when beginning with the Mac, the Verbosity settings can be set to automatically give hints and instructions. The first tab in the Verbosity dialogue is Speech. There is a button to choose the level of information that VoiceOver will speak; the "High" setting provides the most information. The "Hints" button will give the appropriate VoiceOver command, including location and how to activate the item. By default, all buttons in the Verbosity dialogue are set to the highest level. For each topic in the VoiceOver Utility, there is a "Help" tab.

Learning the Keyboard

Take time to get used to the feel of the keyboard. Get comfortable with holding down the VO keys. Other keys that are frequently used with VoiceOver include Shift, the arrow keys, and the Command key. Keyboard Help can be accessed by typing VO + K. Once in that mode, type any key to hear its function. Hold down the VO keys while typing any other keys, and if there is a VoiceOver function associated with those keys, VoiceOver will speak it. Type the Escape key to get out of Keyboard Help.

What's on My Mac

The MacBook comes with many applications already installed, including Mail, Safari, Text Edit (a word processing program), and iTunes. To view a list of all applications on the Mac, type Command + Shift + A. VoiceOver will say, "Applications. Now in Applications Window. List View, Enable." VoiceOver works best when items are displayed in a list view. To open the application, type Command + O. To close an application, type Command + Q, and to close a window in an application, type Command + W.

The Dock

At the bottom of the screen is a horizontal list of applications, including Mail, iTunes, Safari, and Contacts. These applications (plus several others) appear on the Dock by default. To access the Dock, type VO + D. Applications can be added, removed, or moved.

To add an application to the Dock, open the Applications folder with Command + Shift + A, and locate the file. Type Shift + Command + T, and the application will be added. To move the application on the Dock, type Command + Option + Left Arrow to move it to the left or Command + Option + Right Arrow to move it to the right. VoiceOver will announce where the app has been moved. The app can be removed by locating the app on the Dock and typing Shift + VO + M to bring up a Context menu. Then, select the Options sub menu. The first option is "Remove from Dock." At the right end of the Dock are folders for documents and downloads.


There are different ways to move around the screen, interact with applications, and read text. In some cases, a combination of navigation techniques will offer the best results. The VoiceOver Tutorial provides exercises for using the different navigation methods.

Standard Navigation

This technique uses the VO keys, arrow keys, and, at times, additional keys to read and interact with applications and text. For example, to read a row of the table containing songs in iTunes, VO + Right Arrow will read each segment of the row, such as the song title, playing time, artist, etc. Using the left arrow will read the information in the opposite direction.


This form of navigation does not require the VO keys. To turn QuickNav on, press the left and right arrow keys simultaneously. To turn QuickNav off, press the left and right arrow keys simultaneously again. QuickNav can be very useful when reading text or navigating webpages. In Safari (Apple's web browser), if QuickNav is enabled, it's possible to move around a webpage by elements, such as links or headings. Press the up and right arrows at the same time, and VoiceOver will speak elements, such as links, as many times as necessary until you find the element you want to use. The up and down arrow keys will then move you through the elements. Press the up and down arrows together to select the element you wish to read. You may need to perform the command twice. However, if you want to fill out a form on a webpage, QuickNav must be turned off before any text is entered. I found this out when I attempted to fill out a form, but when I started to enter information, I started hearing VoiceOver commands. Once I remembered to turn off QuickNav, I was able to complete the form.

The Multi-Touch Trackpad

This method is similar to VoiceOver gestures on the iPhone. By default, the trackpad is set to function as a mouse, but this can easily be changed by holding down the VO keys and doing a two finger turn to the right on the trackpad. To choose how the trackpad navigates, keep doing a two finger twist to the right without holding down the VO keys until you find the element you want. For example, in a text document, the options are Characters, Words, Sentences, and Paragraphs. On websites, there are additional options, such as Headings, Links, and Forms. There are additional gestures not used on the iPhone. For example, a two-finger double-tap on the bottom middle of the trackpad will go to the Dock, and a two-finger double-tap on the top middle of the trackpad activates the Menu bar.

When performing gestures on the trackpad, it's possible to accidentally mute VoiceOver's speech. To unmute the speech, double-tap the trackpad using three fingers. (This gesture also works on the iPhone.)

Finding Your Way

Here is a list of some useful keyboard commands for finding out information about applications and locating files.

  • The Tab key can be a good way to move around an application to determine layout.
  • Typing Shift + Function + VO + Left Arrow will bring you to the top of the current window and using the right arrow instead of the left will bring you to the bottom of the current window. The MacBooks do not have Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys. On my MacBook Air holding down the Command key and pressing the left arrow creates a Home key and using the right arrow instead of the left creates an End key. Command + Up Arrow is page up and Command + Down Arrow is page down. If these keys do not work try using the Function key instead of the Command key
  • Typing VO + F1 will give the name of the application that is in focus. Typing F2 will give the name of the actual window.
  • Type VO + F to bring up an Edit box to find text in an application or document.

The Spotlight Search is a powerful tool for finding files on your computer. Type Command + Spacebar and enter your search. Results will automatically appear below the form. Use VO + Down Arrow to read them, and press VO + Spacebar to open the file.

The Finder is another way to search for files. It is the first option on the Dock. Files can be sorted by different criteria, including by name, file type, and date.


There are many pre-installed applications on a MacBook. Each application has a Preferences dialogue which can be accessed by typing Command + , (comma). In addition, some applications have an application specific context menu. To determine if one exists, type Shift + VO + M when in the application.


Safari is Apple's web browser. To open a link, type Command + L, then type the link, and press the Enter key. Along with QuickNav and the Trackpad Commander, the web rotor provides another option for navigating a webpage. To enable the rotor, type VO + U. Cycle through the options by using either VO + Left Arrow or VO + Right Arrow. Type VO + Spacebar to select the content you want to read. I've found that using a combination of navigation methods works best depending on the website.


The e-mail program on the Mac is mostly straightforward. Use the Tab key to determine what's on the page when the app loads. There is a list of all your mailboxes starting with the Inbox. Underneath that are the names of your e-mail accounts. For example, I have three separate e-mail accounts. Underneath the "Inbox" button are my two Gmail accounts and my Road Runner account. I can view these accounts separately, but I prefer to view my Inbox for all my e-mail. When the e-mail program loads, it will open in the mailbox that was active when the app was previously closed. Once an e-mail is selected in the Inbox, typing VO + J will open the message. Typing typing VO + J again will bring back the Inbox. To delete an e-mail, type Command + Backspace.

There are many settings choices to be made within the e-mail app. Some are done through menus, and some are done with buttons. To activate a button, type VO + Spacebar. Attachments are usually at the end of the e-mail. Put the cursor on the attachment and type the Context menu command (Shift + VO + M) and activate the option to open the attachment. To add an attachment, locate the file in the Finder or in some other way. Do not open the file, but, instead, copy the name by using Command + C. Go to the bottom of the e-mail receiving the attachment, and press Command + V to paste it into the e-mail.


No discussion of an Apple Mac would be complete without mentioning iTunes. As on the PC, the previous layout of iTunes can be displayed. To do this on the MacBook, type Command + Option + S. The Tab key is a good way to check out the app. Assuming that iTunes 11 is used, there is a default "Music" button. Activating this button will open a menu containing items that used to be in the source list. Depending on which item is selected, the next buttons will provide other options. For example, if the "Music" button is selected, there will then be radio buttons to determine whether to sort by songs, albums, artist, etc.

To play an item, tap the spacebar, and to stop playback, type the spacebar again. The Library search form can be easily accessed by typing Command + Option + F. There is a "Playlist" button that lists all playlists and gives the option to create a new one. To add songs to a playlist, select the songs, bring up the Context menu with Shift + VO + M, select the "Add to Playlist" option, and then choose the playlist.


The more I use my MacBook Air, the more I like it. There are times when I'll make a mistake or get frustrated. One such example was when I first tried to create a playlist in iTunes. I found a work-around by selecting my songs and copying them, activating the "Playlist" button, selecting the playlist I wanted, going to the table of songs in that list, pasting my songs, and then going back to my Music Library table. Hours later, I remembered the Context menu command which has the "Add to Playlist" option. No more switching back and forth.

As with any new computer, take your time learning how to use it. There's a lot to remember, but it can be worthwhile. I'm still learning, but I am already very happy with my MacBook Air.

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