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The New Features, Changes, Improvements, and Bugs in macOS Catalina for Blind and Low Vision Users

Apple has today released macOS 10.15 Catalina to the public. As usual, we won’t cover the mainstream features here, concentrating instead on what’s new and changed for blind and low vision users. For an overview of the mainstream changes, we recommend that you read this AppleInsider review of Catalina.

Please remember to check the section about bugs to see if now is the right time to upgrade. 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.

A note to braille users: the AppleVis team members doing testing with Catalina are not heavy braille users. We have no information as to how well braille works in this release, so please keep this in mind when upgrading. If you are a braille user and have any experience with macOS Catalina and braille, please do post your findings in the comments.

Changes for Blind and Low Vision Users

Last year there were no big changes to VoiceOver or Zoom in macOS Mojave. This is not the case with macOS Catalina, which sees the introduction of some interesting–and potentially powerful–enhancements for blind and low vision users.

Custom Punctuation

In 2017, Apple removed the “most” punctuation setting, leaving coders and those doing document editing with no good options for hearing the punctuation they needed. Catalina fixes this in a big way. Users can now create custom punctuation groups, in which each symbol can be specified. Symbols can be replaced with custom text, such as “left paren” in place of the left parenthesis; skipped by VoiceOver and sent directly to the speech synthesizer in use, to be interpreted there instead; or silently ignored altogether.

As with some other features in macOS Catalina, this new punctuation setup is similar to that in iOS 13. Better still, the two will sync. You can set up a custom group on either platform, and it should appear on all your macOS and iOS devices soon after.

Voice Control

A significant enhancement this year from Apple is a new Voice Control accessibility feature that allows users to fully control Mac, iOS, and iPadOS devices entirely with their voice.

Voice Control improves on the existing Enhanced Dictation feature by using the Siri speech recognition engine, so you get the latest advances in machine learning for audio-to-text transcription.

Highlights of Voice Control include:

  • Add custom words: whether you’re writing a biology report, filling out a legal document, or emailing about a favorite topic, you can add custom words to ensure that Voice Control recognizes the words you commonly use.
  • Rich text editing: thanks to rich text editing commands, you don’t have to rehearse before you speak. Making corrections is quick and easy. You can replace phrases by name. Try saying, “Replace I’m almost there with I just arrived.” Fine-grained selection also makes it simple to select text. Try saying, “Move up two lines. Select previous word. Capitalize that.”
  • Word and emoji suggestions: if you need to correct a word, there’s a new interface just for that. Simply ask to correct a word, and you’ll be presented with a list of suggested replacements.
  • Seamless transitions from dictation to commands: Voice Control understands contextual cues, so you can seamlessly transition between text dictation and commands. For example, say, “Happy Birthday. Press Return key,” in Messages, and Voice Control sends “Happy Birthday” — just as you intended. You can also say, “delete that,” and Voice Control knows to delete what you just typed.
  • Comprehensive app navigation: you can rely entirely on your voice to navigate an app. Comprehensive navigation is provided by navigation commands, names of accessibility labels, numbers, and grids.

All audio processing for Voice Control will take place on your device, ensuring that your personal data is kept private.

Regrettably, at this point, it does not appear that you can use Voice Control to execute VoiceOver commands in macOS Catalina.

Improvements for Low Vision Users

While it’s not something that we have been able to test, Apple has stated that low vision users will be gaining some enhancements on macOS Catalina:

  • Hover Text displays high-resolution zoom of text, text fields, menu items, buttons, and more in a dedicated window. Just press the Control key when hovering over text with your cursor, and a window with zoomed text appears alongside the standard interface — helping you stay contextually aware. Text is crisply displayed in a font and color of your choice, and you can interact with buttons and type right in the zoomed window.
  • While using a second display, you can see the same screen up close and at a distance simultaneously. You can keep one monitor zoomed in and another at a standard resolution. Or keep a personal Mac zoomed in while giving a presentation.
  • Users with color vision deficiencies can adjust display colors using new color filter options. Your Mac shifts the colors onscreen, helping you easily differentiate areas of confusion. And you can turn this preference on and off through the Accessibility Options pane using Command-Option-F5.
  • A new display option lets you tint your entire screen using a color of your choice. Some users may find that certain color tints help make text easier to read.

If you are a low vision Mac user, we would love to hear in the comments your experience and thoughts on these enhancements.

Other Changes

  • With macOS Catalina, Apple states that VoiceOver users can enjoy simplified keyboard navigation that requires less drilling into unique focus groups. However, we have not been able to detect any significant changes to interaction across the OS. If you notice any changes, please do let us know by posting a comment.
  • The Tab key now more simply advances through selection of elements — such as window stoplights, toolbar buttons, and scroll bars.
  • If you have multiple Apple devices, any customized preferences for how punctuation marks are spoken are now stored in iCloud, giving you a consistent experience across macOS, iPadOS, and iOS. This is configured by going to System Preferences > Apple ID > iCloud, and clicking the, “Options,” button next to the iCloud Drive checkbox. Something that we are unsure of, is what the difference is between the “VoiceOver” and “VoiceOver Utility” checkboxes present in the resulting table. If you know or have a suggestion, please let us know by adding a comment below, and if we get further clarification, we’ll be sure to update this article.
  • For blind developers, VoiceOver now reads aloud warnings, line numbers, and break points in the text editor of Xcode 11. This version of Xcode also introduces some new rotor options, accessed with vo-cmd-arrows. These include functions, warnings, errors, and more.
  • macOS Catalina adds more international braille tables and lets you quickly switch between them. This feature is similar to its iOS counterpart, so you should feel at home if you’ve already customized your braille tables on that platform.

Bug Fixes and New Bugs for VoiceOver Users

macOS Catalina has its share of fixes, but it also has some new problems, as do all software releases. Below are our findings:

Accessibility Bugs Resolved in macOS Catalina

Our testing indicates that Apple has resolved the below bugs in macOS Catalina. Let us know if we missed any; we always love adding more fixes to these articles.

  • The “New Event” dialog in Calendar is more navigable with buttons appearing more consistently. Also, pressing the Tab key to cycle between events behaves more reliably.
  • VoiceOver is now more responsive when using Activities with Nuance voices.
  • VoiceOver no longer seems to skip over entire blocks of text when using the, “Read all” command. Typically, this would happen when reading webpage articles in Safari.
  • When pressing Command Shift D to send a message in Mail, VoiceOver now correctly speaks the action as, “Send.”
  • When going back a page in Safari, VoiceOver more consistently returns to the same point.
  • When navigating a webpage in Safari Reader, there is no longer a vertical scrollbar, and if you have curser wrapping disabled, pressing VO Left Arrow will, as expected, not wrap around to the bottom of the page.
  • VoiceOver no longer announces, “System Preferences has new window” when navigating certain preference panes.
  • VoiceOver should no longer occasionally behave as though it were disabled when interacting with the Touch Bar on certain Macs
  • the address bar in Safari should behave better, with VoiceOver no longer announcing incorrect characters when you delete text.

New Bugs for VoiceOver Users in macOS Catalina

Unlike iOS 13, our testing suggests that macOS Catalina has relatively few new accessibility bugs to speak of; of note, we found no serious bugs in our testing. Below are the Catalina-specific bugs we identified; if you encounter any not on this list, and which haven’t been present since before macOS 10.15 Catalina, please let us know in the comments. Please also let us know if you find one of our bugs to not be a problem on your Catalina system. Even if it’s still a bug, we can at least note that it doesn’t happen to everyone.

  • The only way to play an episode in the new Podcasts app is to focus on it, route the mouse pointer to it with VO Command F5, or VO Command Function 5 if you’re using a Mac with a Touch Bar, and clicking the mouse, either by pressing the button or with VO Shift Space.
  • If you have Voice Control enabled, VoiceOver may announce “Dictation has new window” when navigating popup menus throughout the system. It is not clear exactly what the purpose of this window is.

In Conclusion

macOS Catalina is a solid update that adds some good new features and enhancements for blind and low vision users. We encountered no show-stopping bugs in this version of macOS. Our recommendation is to update when you’re ready. You may want to give others some time to find the bugs or other problems we missed, but we believe most users should be okay to update now.

As always, we look forward to hearing your thoughts on this update. What do you like? What do you not like? Let us know by adding a comment below.

To install macOS 10.15 Catalina, choose System Preferences from the Apple menu, then click the Software Update preference pane to check for updates. If any updates are available, click the Update Now button to install them. Or click ”More info” to see details about each update and select specific updates to install.

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