Assistive Technology built into OS X

We have an iMac at home. Before that we had . . . another iMac. I have used a Mac since my first Apple II in 1995. For 20 years I have been a Mac fan and I’m ashamed to say in all that time I have never explored the Assistive technology features. They always seem to have been there but I didn’t need them, so never took time to explore them.

Assistive technology devices are identified in the IDEA 2004 as:

Any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities. (Rubblier, p. 408)

This week I have explored and played with the features which currently run on OS X Yosemite. Wow, there are a lot more that I realized! Although I have taught children for 17 years with a range of different educational needs, I have never really had access to Macs in school, and so it never crossed my mind to look at the features.

Below are some of the key features which are available on the iMac on OS X . The feature set available on the Mac is rich and has a high level of customization. You access the options through the preferences menu and the Accessibility Icon. By clicking on  the relevant option in the left hand menu you will find the box on the right changes to provide setting levels.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.18.40 AM
This screenshot shows the Accessibility menu on an iMac running OS X Yosemite

For those who have are blind or visually impaired there are a number of features which can be enabled to help them access content:

  • Cursor size can be made larger
  • A Zoom feature can be set to make the images on screen up to 20 times larger
  • Contrast and color are highly adaptable to personal requirements for a wide range of different visual disabilities.
  • Video descriptions can be enabled for some content which give spoken descriptions of visual content

The most powerful piece of software appears to be the VoiceOver tool. I always thought it was just a text-to -talk tool but in playing with the built in training tool, it is clear that it is much more than that. It lets the user pretty much control the computer without the need to see it. There are a high number of customizable tools which make it easier for the user. There is built in Braille support for Braille displays which can be used plug and play with the computer. Controlling  VoiceOver can be done with gestures on a magic mouse or trackpad.

For users who are hearing impaired there are also a number of features which can improve their user experience.

  • Captions can be turned on and different sizes of font can be set
  • The computer can be set to use Subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing (SDH) can be optioned
  • A visual flash can be enabled on the screen to let users know that an alert sound has been played
  • Volume can be adjusted as and stereo can be set to mono so both headphones play the same sounds. This means users who might have less hearing in one ear do not lose content from a stereo track.
Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.51.28 AM
A screenshot of the captions menu with a preview of subtitle style

There are a number of features which assist users with different cognitive disabilities.

  • The VoiceOver tool can be used for text-to-speech recognition to assist with reading
  • The Dictation tool can be used to assist those who need help with writing by turing their voiced thoughts into written words
  • In certain Mac apps such as Pages or even TextEdit you can enable word completion and suggested words are presented in list form to choose from. This also supports writing for users who find word retrieval or verbalization difficult.

The features mentioned so far will often also help those with physical disabilities. In OS X there some additional accessibility tools built in to help those who might find keyboard or mouse use difficult.

  • Switch control is a feature which lets users customize their ability to navigate and use menus and commands. It enables a range of different input devices such as a joystick be used to navigate
  • The Dictation tools built into OS X are reasonably wide ranging and voice can be used to write and format a document as well as create your own commands
  • An onscreen keyboard is available for those who cannot use a traditional keyboard for access
  • For those who have difficulty controlling a traditional mouse or trackpad, the computer can be set to use the numeric keypad like a mouse.
  • The keyboard can be configured to assist those who find typing difficult. Where using two hands is not possible the Sticky Keys function lets you combine keystrokes to mimic the two key command pressing (e.g. for saving or Capitalization)
  • The Slow Keys function adjusts the sensitivity of the keyboard by adding a delay to keystrokes, another tool which supports those who have difficulty with motor skills.

“Mild disabilities are considered to be the most prevalent type of disability. They include learning disabilities, emotional disabilities and intellectual disabilities. . .Typically, the important issue for these users is not the physical access to the technology but reading, writing, memory and retention of information” (Roblyer, p. 410). I have to admit that my rather narrow view of disability and assistive technology was weighted in favor of those with more severe disabilities. This statement by Roblyer made me reflect on the use of these tools with other pupils. We have one iMac in class and I can see how using these tools with a pupil of mine who has an IAP would benefit him. The VoiceOver tool and the dictation tool especially would really support his learning. He would have the ability to get more of his ideas down on the page and showcase his learning.

What is not clear to me as someone who does not need these tools myself on a daily basis, is if they really work as intended. I did some scanning of different web forums and indeed it seems that Apple is a leader in terms of including free and embedded tools. It would be good to hear how you use them in class or in your educational context.


Roblyer, M. D. (2016). Integrating educational technology into teaching. 7th Edition. Massachusetts: Pearson.

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