Beginning VoiceOver for macOS

An image of the classic Apple logo

What is VoiceOver?

VoiceOver is a Screen Reader. Screen readers are software applications that will attempt to identify, interpret, and read the information being presented on the computer’s screen.
OS X is Apple’s operating system for desktops and laptops. VoiceOver is built in to OS X machines and iOS devices including iPad, iPhone, iPod. iOS was built off of and is closely related to OS X, but they are not one and the same.
OS X VoiceOver and iOS VoiceOver are not the same either. OSX VoiceOver operates off of keyboard input like other screen readers such as JAWS, NVDA, Window-Eyes, and Dolphin. iOS VoiceOver operates off of touch screen gestures similar to other mobile device screen readers such as Android Talkback and Windows Narrator.

A (brief) History of OS X

The Macintosh project began in 1978 and was taken over by Steve Jobs in 1981. Apple released its first version of Mac OS, called “System” in 1984. This was followed by various updated versions from 1984 to 1999. In 1999, Apple released Mac OS 9. This version was followed by the Mac OS X series. Below you’ll find the various versions of OS X, their release dates, and version numbers.
Kodiak Released in 2001, Kodiak was a preview version of Mac OS X.
Cheetah Released in 2001, Cheetah was Mac OS X version 10.0.
Puma Released in 2001, Puma was Mac OS X version 10.1.
Jaguar Released in 2002, Jaguar was Mac OS X version 10.2.
Panther Released in 2003, Panther was Mac OS X version 10.3.
Tiger Released in 2005, Panther was Mac OS X version 10.4.
Leopard Released in 2007, Panther was Mac OS X Version 10.5.
Snow Leopard Released in 2009, Snow Leopard was Mac OS X Version 10.6.
Lion Released in 2011, Lion was Mac OS X version 10.7
Mountain Lion Released in 2012, Mountain Lion was Mac OS X version 10.8.
Mavericks Released in 2013, Mavericks was Mac OS X version 10.9
Yosemite Released in 2014, Yosemite was Mac OS X version 10.10.
El Capitan Released in 2015, El Capitan is Mac OS X version 10.11. It is the most recent version of OS X.
How can I find out what Apple computer I have? Go to the Apple button, the leftmost item on the menu bar in the top left corner of the screen. This will open a dropdown menu. Find “About this Mac”. This will open the About This Mac menu which will tell you your current version of Mac OS X and your processor and memory specs.

From Windows to Apple – the Great Transition

For most people, Microsoft Windows is the operating system they were first introduced to. Windows machines are commonly in workplaces, schools, libraries, and more. So, for many, moving to the Mac world is a transition. This is especially true for a screen reader user moving from a program like JAWS or Window-Eyes on a Windows machine to using a Mac with VoiceOver.
Why is it so tough? The bottom line is: Mac is really a whole new world. There is not going to be a Windows equivalent for every program, setting, and hotkey. This means that new users will find that there are things they could do in Windows that they can’t do in Mac and visa versa. The Mac world runs a little differently, especially on the accessibility side of things.
What’s different? The layout of the interface, the layout of the keyboard (to a degree), native applications and utilities, 3rd party applications, and some of the fundamental ways with which you operate the screen reader.
Is Mac harder than PC? No. The problem is that you likely don’t remember the trials and tribulations of learning how to use the Windows computer. As well, you may have forgotten how difficult it was to learn your Windows screen reader. Regardless, OS X and VoiceOver are no more difficult to learn than Windows and programs like JAWS or Window-Eyes (in fact, there are many users who would tell you that VoiceOver is a much more intuitive system than other screen readers). However, you need to keep in mind you’re learning two new skills – OS X and VoiceOver.

The Apple Keyboard

All keyboards – Apple or Windows – differ in some ways. Keyboards from different manufacturers will have different utilities mapped to the function keys. Further some keyboard manufacturers will include extra buttons above the function keys which will do a range of functions – adjust volume, bring you to your homepage, open the calculator app, and more. Further, some Windows keyboards may include a context key in the first row of keys between the Windows button and Ctrl.
So all keyboards differ to some extent. With that being said, all keyboards for Apple and Windows are very similar. Both Windows and Apple use the QWERTY keyboard – this means that the letter, number, and symbol keys (the printable keys) are in the same places.
However, the Apple and Windows keyboards do have some large differences. The differences come in the first row of keys. Apple keyboards do not have Ctrl, Windows, and Alt keys. Instead, the Apple keyboard has Control, Option, and Command keys. There is no one to one equivalency between the first row keys on Windows and Apple. The keys are used differently, though some similarities do exist.
First Row of the typical Windows Keyboard from Left to Right: Ctrl, Windows, Alt, Space, Alt, Windows, Context, Ctrl, Arrow Keys, Numpad
First Row of the typical Apple Keyboard from Left to Right: Control, Option, Command, Space, Command, Option, Control, Arrow Keys, Numpad

Turning on and off your Apple Computer

When your Mac is off, press the power button to turn it on.
While on, hold the power button for 1.5 seconds to display a dialog asking if you want to restart, sleep, or shut down. If you don’t want to wait the 1.5 seconds for this dialog, press Control + Power or Control + Media Eject.
To force a shut down, hold the power button for 5 seconds or press Command + Control + Power.

Tour of the OS X Interface

Menu Bar

The Menu Bar is a strip of words and icons across the top of the screen. Clicking on each of these will reveal a different menu of specific commands that allow you to control your Mac and tell it what you want it to do. These menus will change depending on what program or “application” you are using at the moment.
Move to Menu Bar VO + M


The Dock is the bar of icons that sits at the bottom or side of your screen. It provides easy access to many of the apps that come with your Mac (like Mail, Safari, and Messages). You can add your own apps, documents and folders to the Dock, too.
VO + D


The Desktop is your virtual workspace in Mac’s OS X. It’s the starting point for all the work (and play), and the screen over which everything floats.
Shift + VO + D


Dashboard provides access to several fun and functional, mini applications called widgets. OS X includes widgets for some of your favorite Apple apps, like Contacts and Calendar. These widgets give you quick access to your contacts and events without having to open up an app. You can add more widgets to Dashboard, and even create your own.


How you access your drives, folders, files, etc.
Command + N


Find files, folders, etc.
VO + F

System Preferences

Preferences for current app.
Command + Comma

Turning VoiceOver On and Off

Command + F5 – Turn VoiceOver on and off

Pro Tips on Starting Screen Readers

An important and sometimes difficult concept for using VoiceOver is to listen. It sounds easy enough but can prove more difficult when exercising it in action. Listening as VoiceOver speaks is critical. VoiceOver will explain the context your in and will often give you directions about what keystrokes are relevant. So, taking a deep breath and being patient is extremely important. If I move the focus with my keyboard while VoiceOver is speaking, VoiceOver will stop speaking about the last active item and move to the new item. This means that if we rush around, we’ll miss what could be critical information.
Don’t get discouraged. Like all screen readers, VoiceOver requires a large amount of memorization – not just of keyboard commands but of menu and program layouts and more. Sometimes you will be completely baffled. Sometimes you’ll forget a keyboard command for the 10th time. It’s okay. It’s all part of the process.

VoiceOver Help

The VoiceOver Help menu is an important resource. Open the help menu with VO + H.
Online Help Opens the VoiceOver Help section of the Help Center. Use the combination VO + ? to go directly to Online Support.
Commands Help Commands Help lists out all the VoiceOver hotkeys by type. Use the combination VO + H + H to go directly to Commands Help.
Keyboard Help A mode where you can explore the keyboard. Hit any key and have VoiceOver echo it back. Hit escape to stop Keyboard Help mode. Use the combination VO + K to go directly to Keyboard Help.
Sounds Help Sounds help lists the various alert sounds in VoiceOver. Use this menu to better learn the various alert sounds you may encounter in OS X.
Quick Start Tutorial Launches a tutorial designed to give you an introduction to VoiceOver. Use the keyboard combination VO + Command + F8 to directly launch the Quick Start Tutorial.
Getting Started Guide Opens a web browser on the VoiceOver Getting Started guide section of the Apple Support site.


Windows, documents, and webpages have different areas that contain text, files, or other content. When the VoiceOver cursor reaches one of these areas, it identifies the content area. For example, VoiceOver may identify scroll areas, HTML content, lists, outlines, tables, groups, or text areas.
You can navigate past a content area or you can stop and interact with it to read its contents. For example, you can navigate past the Finder sidebar to get to the view browser, or you can interact with the sidebar to open folders and files.
Press VO-Shift-Down Arrow. If you’re using VoiceOver gestures, flick right with two fingers on the trackpad.
Press VO-Shift-Up Arrow. If you’re using VoiceOver gestures, flick left with two fingers on the trackpad.

The VoiceOver Utility

The VoiceOver Utility has a range of important settings. You can open up this utility with the keyboard combination VO + F8
General Change your login greeting, turn on/off the welcome dialog when VoiceOver starts, turn on/off and setup portable preferences, toggle on/off Allow VoiceOver to be Controlled with AppleScript.
Verbosity Change your speech & braille verbosity level: High, Medium, and Low. Change Text verbosity settings related to how and when text is read. Change what VoiceOver announces. Control when and how hints are given.
Speech Mute and unmute speech, change the VoiceOver voice, and change the rate, pitch, volume, and intonation. In the pronunciation tab, change what VoiceOver speaks when it encounters certain text.
Navigation Settings related to where VoiceOver focus moves, and how he keyboard cursor, mouse pointer, and VoiceOver focus operate.
Web Adjust a range of settings related to how VoiceOver navigates and handles web content like tables, images, and more.
Sound Mute sound effects, enable/ disable positional audio, and choose your audio output device.
Visuals A range of settings related to the look of the interface. Adjust the size of the mouse cursor, caption font size, braille panel settings, and more.
Commanders Change keyboard shortcut functionality related to the numpad, keyboard, and Quick Nav.
Braille Settings related to using a braille display.
Activities You can use VoiceOver activities to create groups of preferences for specific uses. For example, you can create an activity to use a certain voice and faster speaking rate when you’re shopping online catalogs, and create a second activity to use a different voice and slower speaking rate when you’re reading online newspapers. You can switch activities manually or have VoiceOver switch automatically based on the applications you use.


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