Mac OS X accessibility tweaks

An apple logo in grey, accessibility logo in blueA few weeks after the stroke I had in June I wanted to get some new podcasts. Listening to radio shows proved a great way of keeping myself occupied.

Up until my unexpected health setback I was an inveterate, dextrous computer user. Years of constant honing meant I’ve created an onscreen environment that’s familiar and comfortable. I was at home on my system. (Find out more about my unplanned hiatus).

To simplify things, you could say I woke up with impaired vision. This meant all of a sudden I couldn’t easily use my computer the way it was configured. Completing basic tasks like getting new podcasts was no longer something I could breezily do. The idea that I’d actually enjoy using a computer again initially seemed a ludicrous one.

Over the last two months through experimentation and research I’ve made adjustment to my computer settings and habits. I’ve also found some new tools that are making my life easier. I’m writing here about these things in the hope it’ll be of use to others who face similar challenges. Included are notes about a few of the frustrations I’ve faced along the way.

Vision impairments are not all equal so it’s important to be fairly specific about this. One label for the type of vision deficit I’ve got is homonymous hemianopia. For me this results in a blindspot in the upper right quadrant of my visual field. I’ve got a constant pulsing flicker in my eyes.

Imagine having overlapping concentric circles rippling out across your eye, much like a pond disturbed after a stone hits still water.

Not only do I tire when reading on screen or paper, but I have particular trouble scanning. Ironically, I found this really pronounced when visiting one of my favourite websites. The multiple columns and cramped layout mean I avoid it nowadays, when once I was a daily visitor. I can read a page of a book, a letter or some recipes, but this tends to be limited to a single page at any one time.

This means I’ve got to adjust the way I use my computer set-up. Fortunately, Apple is seriously committed to accessibility. Built-in to the operating system of my two Macs running OS 10.6 Snow Leopard were lots of useful looking features. Working out exactly what would suit me is something I’ve be progressively working on.

Basic re-settings

View Options dialogue box showing how to change Icon and text size, from Mac OS X 10.6The first thing I did was to reduce the resolution of my screen. Rather than cramming as much as I could on my 22 inch monitor, I’ve scaled back to 1280 x 1024 pixels.

Folders in the Finder are something I use constantly, so I’ve tweaked the display of these as much as I can (using View Options). The font and icon size is now large, and there are wide spaces between lines in lists of documents or folders. Something I’d like to do, but can’t see how to, is increase the font size of the text in the Sidebar.

Using the same View Options to modify the look of folders on the Desktop has made a subtle improvement. I increased the folder size to 52 x 52 pixels and fonts now display at 14pt. It may seem a very minor change, but because it’s an area I regularly use so anything that speeds up the ease of scanning is worth it.

For applications I regularly use, including Thunderbird email client, I’ve also tweaked the display of text. This has meant tweaks to text sizes in individual applications including iPhoto, iTunes and Evernote. Within Thunderbird, I can adjust the body text in messages, but it’s not possible to increase the font sizes for navigation items nor for folder names (unless I’m missing something). This makes me wonder about using Apple’s email client, something I ditched years ago for reasons I can’t recall.

The one area I haven’t been able to adjust the font size for is the menu bar at the top of the screen. It would be good increase the font to 14pt the same as on the rest of the labels, but I can’t easily see how to do this.

I’ve made little use of Screen Magnification. All this takes to use is holding down the Option key and swiping vertically on my Mighty Mouse to increase/ decrease the size of the whole screen. Because the text often renders in a blurred way, I don’t find it something I want to use.

The wonders of full screen

Button used to enlarge to full-screenThe time eventually arrives when everything I can find where things live. It’s time to actually do some work. For me this means doing research (ie surfing the web) and typing up reports, notes, memos, articles, and the like.

The thing that makes the biggest difference to me easily completing these types of tasks is the magic phrase: Full Screen. Many applications now provide users the option of expanding a document so that all navigation and menus are hidden out of sight. The document you’re working on takes up the majority of the screen.

As I type this blog post using Microsoft Word all I can see is a white page with my pithy paragraphs, with a wide black border on the left and right. Over on the far right, out of sight, is a scroll bar. If I move the mouse to the top of the page a limited pane of navigation options is revealed. This clean, minimalist approach means I can focus on what I’m writing.

The Full Screen option is widely used in many applications. Other office productivity suites offer this feature, including Apple’s iWorks and the free, open source NeoOffice. The latest version of Firefox offers the same thing. This simple feature will no doubt take off like wild fire.

Another related find is a tool which strips out distractions on webpages (including navigation, menus, article stubs and ads). I’m using the readability add-ons for Firefox and Safari.

Whether it’s an article about The B52s or RWC2011, I can easily get down to the substance by clicking on the “Read now” button I’ve installed. Up pops a window with the article, naked, neither distracting ads nor navigation are shown. I’ve set the default font size to 14pt and made the column fairly narrow, so I can easily read articles on screen.

There are other features bundled with readability which give it the edge over other comparable tools (eg Read It Later) and the built-in Reader in Safari. I see the benefits as being worth the monthly US$5 fee. I’ll write more about this when I write about Kindle accessibility.

Hearing rather than reading text

Crowded list with 50 reasons to use VoiceOver, Mac OS 10.6When I first looked at the blurb about the Mac OS 10.6 accessibility features I was a bit overwhelmed. There was so much I could tweak and adjust I didn’t know where to start. As the image above shows, there are over 50 reasons to use something called VoiceOver. Rather than try to read the scrambled page listing all these reasons, I just dived in.

To come straight out with it, I found the process of trialling VoiceOver to be pretty confusing. This was in part because I wasn’t ready to learn about something new. It was also because there are screeds of information, lots of options, all of which are seemingly of equal importance. I couldn’t easily find a guide to switching on the things that would suit my particular needs. Sadly the Take Control series doesn’t have a guide to these features of the Mac OS.

After a few sleepless nights and fruitless searches for real life guidance (as opposed to marketing spiels) I gave up on VoiceOver. I probably could have done with some help. Nursing some frustration, I realised I was trying to do too much. By chance I remembered the KIS maxim: keep it simple. And that’s what I did.

I decided to start by setting up “text to speech”. Built-in within System Preferences on the Speech setting tab is an option to “speak selected text when the key is pressed”. (To find speech look for the for the old fashioned microphone). I ticked this option and set up a memorable keyboard short-cut.

Now, after I highlight text in virtually any programme and tapping in the shortcut then sit back to listen to a sentence, paragraph or whole article as the computer reads it aloud. This feature is brilliant. Because it’s system wide, I can use to give voice to emails, webpages, documents, PDFs and more.

My initial burst of enthusiasm soon waned. I began to tire of the metallic, synthesised tone. Even with a choice of several male and female voices the voices begin to grate. While they’re adequate for short bursts of text, they are definitely not something I could endure listening to for long.

By adding Infovox’s iVoice pack I’ve found a way to overcome this limitation. In place of computer-generated voices, iVox offers what sounds like real human beings. Although packs with New Zealand accents are not available, I could get speakers using the Queen’s English. Now, when I use the text to speech function I can choose who addresses me: Lucy, Rachel, Graham or Peter from the UK.

I paired my British iVoices with another piece of software to give me more control over the text to speech process. Amongst other things, GhostReader allows me to easily switch between the voices I’ve installed, skip paragraphs, speed up reading, and export spoken documents as MP3s to iTunes.

These two third-party extras have transformed the basic tools. I decided to spend NZ$184 on these – initially for just one of my computers – as it means I can engage with ideas so much readily.

An alternative option was to use the expanded voices available in the new Mac OS 10.7 (Lion). If these are anything like the voices available on the iPad, then they’re not much of an improvement over Alex, Bruce, Fred, Kathy, Vicki and Victoria installed with Mac OS 10.6.

I am actually using the text to speech tools almost every day as it reduces eye-strain and tiredness. Coupled with a portable ebook reader and MP3 player, I’m continue to do things I like doing (ie reading articles, browsing newspaper sites, etc) as well as getting back to work.

After initially being a bit bamboozled by the accessibility options, I’ve got my computer set up so I can actually do things. It’s a great relief that it ended up being pretty easy to do, despite a few hitches along the way.

I’m sure I’ve missed some adaptations or extras that would help with my peculiar visual impairment. I’d welcome any pointers. Better still, if you can suggest a short cut that will help others, make sure you add a link in the comments.

More on: adapting my reading and computing habits in the aftermath of a stroke

This is the first of four blog posts I’m writing about the tools I’m using so I can get do the stuff I like and need to. The other subjects I’ll cover are:

  • how audiobooks are a saviour
  • why I chose a Kindle
  • what stopped me from getting an iPad from an accessibility point of view.