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macOS 10.12 Sierra: What’s New and Changed for Blind and Low Vision Users

Welcome to Sierra

Today, Apple released a free update to its Mac computers: macOS Sierra. Apart from the new name for this version (Sierra), you’ll notice that Apple has re-branded the entire line of the Mac’s operating system. No longer is it OS X; it’s macOS, to line up with tvOS, watchOS, and iOS. As always, this is a free upgrade, available to anyone with a supported Mac. And, again as always, we urge you to back up important files before upgrading, just in case.

A few of us on the AppleVis team have been testing Sierra all summer, and I’m here to tell you about the new features–and bugs–specific to accessibility that we’ve found.

New Features

We’ll start in VoiceOver, as that’s the part of Sierra’s accessibility most of you want to know about. There’s nothing major in this release like Window Spots or a bunch of new voices, so don’t expect anything earth-shaking this year. What the fine folks in Cupertino did focus on is overall usability. That is, they addressed as many bugs as they could, and did their best to make sure that every aspect of the operating system is as accessible as possible.

That’s not to say that a few welcomed changes didn’t come to VoiceOver, though. Three of my biggest annoyances were taken care of in this release, along with several more minor things that always bugged me.

First, if you’ve always been mad at VoiceOver when it randomly shouts out, “1 row added”, I have good news. There is now a way to disable this feature, or cause VO to play a click sound instead of announcing anything. Simply head to the VO Utility, select ‘verbosity’ from the list of categories, go to the ‘announcements’ tab, and find the popup menu for ‘when number of rows changes under VoiceOver cursor’.

Speaking of announcements, VO has some revisions. In previous versions of macOS, interaction commands would always result in either ‘interact with some item’ or ‘stop interacting with some item’. This was a clear message, but was rather verbose. Now, Sierra offers a pleasant change. Interacting with something will cause VO to say simply, ‘in some item’, while stopping interacting produces ‘out of some item’. In the same vein as making interaction announcements smaller, HTML items have been given better names. Instead of being called ‘HTML content’ items, they are now ‘web item’ elements. Thus, if you stop interacting with a webpage in Safari, you will no longer hear ‘stop interacting with HTML content’. Now, it’s just ‘out of web content’. Much faster to listen to!

I mentioned that one focus of Sierra’s accessibility is VoiceOver support for all new features. As you use the parts of macOS new to Sierra, you’ll see this focus. The Siri interface is fully accessible, with your inputs and Siri’s responses sorted in a scroll area, with items representing responses from applications in cards with which you can interact. In Mail, you’ll find a new way to filter messages, just left of the table of messages. This, too, is fully accessible and very easy to use.

Bugs and Problems: The Squashed and the Still Here

Apple has addressed a number of long-standing bugs in Sierra, which is great. But it’s not all roses. Some bugs remain, while a few new ones have crept in. In years past, the first two or three incremental updates to the year’s major macOS version have sorted out many of the lingering problems. Hopefully that happens again this year. Before all the problems, though, let’s look at the good stuff.

Fixed Bugs

In Safari, you can toggle Quick Nav with no trouble once again, and password fields–if navigated to with the caps lock key as your VO modifier–will no longer cause problems. VoiceOver will also not be bothered if you loop past the end of a webpage in Reader view, though it still refuses to perform a say-all. Still, as it would completely lock up in the past, this is an improvement. VoiceOver also seems to keep its place on webpages better, so that if you open a link on a page and then close the new page, you are very probably going to be where you left off on the first page. Speaking of pages, you can now open tabs from the ‘show all tabs’ popover (cmd-shift-backslash). It’s a minor thing, but the problem where VO would speak the first letter of whatever you’d just typed into the address bar in Safari when you hit enter is now fixed. If you use the arrow keys to navigate a page (with Quick Nav off), you’ll find you get feedback about headings, images, and so on; before, VO would ignore such details unless you moved by vo-arrows. Finally, the bug where VoiceOver didn’t always move to text fields (such as on Bookshare or this very website) seems to be gone.

Mail has gotten a fix or three. It seems that using enter to open and read messages is reliable, whereas it could take a while for messages to load in previous versions of macOS. Very complex emails, such as a newsletter with a lot of images and formatting, will take a moment to open, but that’s to be expected and isn’t part of the VoiceOver bug which has now been fixed. If you’re a user of Mail’s Classic View, you’ll be happy to hear that the “disclosure triangle” announcement that preceded every message or thread has been removed. For Standard View users, the bug where VO would announce that a conversation had been expanded or collapsed, even if you were focused on a single message when you pressed an arrow key, is also gone. While we’re on the topic of threads, those of you who rely on Mail’s ability to give a preview of each email without you having to open it are in for a pleasant surprise. Apple has fixed an old bug, and previews are now spoken for all messages, even those in expanded threads. Oh, and on the subject of being digitally social, Apple has made the ‘share to Twitter’ dialog more usable now in that the number of characters remaining in your tweet is spoken when you move to it rather than being a hint.

In Calendar, there were sometimes odd problems in tabbing between events and making new ones. Both of these have been addressed, though you may still find focus returning to the first field of the ‘new event’ dialog under certain circumstances. I also want to point out that the “bug” AppleVis had previously reported, where the number of appointments on a given day was not appearing, was never a VoiceOver bug. Rather, it was a visual change that VoiceOver was simply following–in some views, the number of events had been removed from the display. So far as I can tell, this change has been reversed, and both ‘week’ and ‘month’ views show the number of events on a given day once more. Needless to say, this means that VoiceOver once again reads this information, which I am very happy to have back.

There’s not much to say about word-processing, as it is already about as good as it can be. However, one important bug has been fixed in Sierra: VoiceOver users can once again select text across page breaks. I’ve tested this in both Pages and Text Edit, and found it to work just fine.

A couple of minor bugs that need to be mentioned remain. The Trackpad Commander not working correctly, if enabled using caps lock as the VO modifier, has been fixed in Sierra. The bug with Nuance voices, where you would hear “capital” before a capital letter even if your capitalization announcement preference was to change pitch, is also fixed. This makes it that much nicer to use these voices if you don’t like the Alex voice.

New Bugs

Any bugs that already exist which I haven’t mentioned will still be active in Sierra, or are fixed and I missed them. There are a few new ones that you should know about, though. Please note that I can’t test Sierra with a braille display, so have no idea what might be better or worse on that front.

Siri is a huge help, especially for opening apps, dealing with your calendar, and so on. However, one feature it has on iOS is missing from the Mac, at least for VoiceOver users. On iOS, if VO is on when you tell Siri to send a text, tweet, Facebook update, and so on, Siri reads the dictated text aloud before confirming that you want to send it. This, of course, is because most VO users can’t read it on the screen. Siri on Mac lacks this feature, so you must find and review the text manually. Of course, you could also trust that Siri did the right thing.

In Safari, text fields can act odd. For one thing, tabbing to them will interact with them, meaning that vo-arrows move you through the text instead of moving from the text field to another element. Put another way, if vo-right is reading by word when you were actually trying to get away from the field, you’ve run into this bug. Simply stop interacting (vo-shift-up) once to get out. You’ll also find other odd behavior: pressing the return key, with character typing feedback on, only speaks ‘new line’ the first time, not subsequent times; VO will sometimes seem to get stuck at the top or bottom of the text; and text searches act in a somewhat confusing way. Previously, performing a search (vo-f) in a text field would always make the “nothing found” sound. Now, it speaks the result of the search, which moves outside of the field before starting, even though focus remains inside the field, not moving at all. It’s rather confusing unless you know what’s going on; suffice it to say that vo-f remains unusable in text fields, just in a new way.

Should You Upgrade?

I will preface this with the large caveat that I am a single beta tester, and a tester who does not use braille with macOS. I don’t use all the apps, in all the same ways, that you do, and I don’t have the same needs as you do. This is all from my own perspective, and if you are hesitant to upgrade, you should post a forum topic on AppleVis and ask others what they think about the situation that has you concerned.

That said, I see no reason to avoid this upgrade. Apple has taken care of a good number of existing bugs, and the only major new ones I’ve found are either an iteration of an existing problem, or a single bug in an otherwise wonderful new feature (Siri). Understand that Siri not reading back messages or tweets is a bug, but it by no means renders Siri unusable. Speech recognition has gotten so good that I sometimes find myself sending off bits of text with Siri, on all my Apple devices, without checking them over. Plus, you don’t need speech feedback to open apps, play music, find emails or files, ask for your new messages to be read aloud, and so on.

Bottom line: to me, this is a no-brainer. If your Mac can handle Sierra, definitely upgrade! There are no regressions as far as I know, some great new features for both general use and accessibility, and no price tag for any of it. Again, though, if you’re wondering about a particular app or workflow, wait until others have upgraded and then ask about it. For the majority of users, though, I feel quite safe in recommending that you update as soon as you can.

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