Truly Universal Access?

Martin Levins
21 October, 2007
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Played with this? It’s in the second-last row of your system preferences and looks a little like a minimalist graphics designer got to da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man”. You know — the naked guy in the circle.

Usually, the only reason that most of us visit this preference pane is to correct a problem caused by an accidental key combination or a small child (whom you probably then accused of being accidental). Something strange in the neighbourhood: reversed colours on screen, high contrast, strange beeps and screen flashes probably mean that a vision, mobility or hearing impaired assistant has been set.

I don’t want to explore the Universal Access functionality in its “impaired user” context here. That really demands a careful assessment of the user’s needs and will be peculiar to that user. However, some of the functionality is really useful in day-to-day teaching, and by exploring this aspect of the facility, the enormous built-in assistance will become apparent.

Let’s start with what it can’t do. Applications need to be prepped by developers to take advantage of Universal Access. Apple’s developer web site states: “Although many Universal Access features work independent of your application, you will need to put some effort into making your application fully accessible to users with disabilities (a process that Apple calls access-enabling).”

So, don’t expect the assistive features to work with Microsoft Word, because it’s not written to work with them. Not surprising maybe, but iTunes doesn’t work fully with all of Universal Access either. Yeeps — Apple ignoring its own advice to developers? Who’d have thunk it?

Most other applications do work, however and work well.

One of the first that the kids will discover will be parts of what Apple is now calling VoiceOver. Select some text in Safari or Mail or Pages, Go to the Application menu and choose Services, Speech, Start Speaking Text and listen to the dulcet tones of Bruce or Vicki. You can change the voice and/or assign a key combination to begin speaking, but not in the Universal Access pane. You control these configurations in System Preferences, Speech.

You don’t have to be affected by a visual impairment to use this: kids with reading difficulties also benefit. You just have to let them get over changing the voices because they’re “funny”. Apple has installed so many silly voices you start to wonder if it thought this was a serious tool or just a novelty.

In Leopard, the quality of these voices will be significantly improved, but you can purchase higher-quality voices from Cepstral (see “Hot links”) before upgrading if you need to.

VoiceOver is an interesting technology: making it possible for an extremely visually impaired person to use their computer and compares favourably with Jaws, the “standard” for visual impaired use, only available (at great cost) for Windows.

I’ve only touched on the power of VoiceOver as a technology here because I don’t think it’s ready for prime time, albeit slated to improve significantly in Leopard. In the meantime, if you want to consider extending its use beyond reading text out loud, have a look at the review in “Hot links”.

Swap to the “Seeing” tab of Universal Access and note that you can use greyscale for those affected by Red/Green colour blindness, or enhance contrast for old monitors or bad lighting conditions.

There’s a really useful function here — the zoom function. Turn it on and zoom in to focus on a specific area of the screen when presenting. You can gain finer control over the zoom in the Trackpad Preference Pane on a laptop, setting the zoomed part of the screen to move only when the cursor reaches the edge of the screen so you don’t make your audience or class members seasick.

Applications may have their own zoom function of course, and this approach may be preferable, but Application-specific zooms tend to concentrate on the contents of the application’s document rather than its interface elements — you decide which is appropriate.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the assistive technologies built into your Mac. There are lots of them, but you get the feeling that Apple hasn’t really focused on this functionality. Some of the features are poorly implemented, activated and controlled from obscure locations, are confusing or require activating key combinations that sometimes resemble launch codes for a nuclear missile.

But, as they say, this may be “fixed in Leopard” which will bring support for Braille devices and closed captioning in QuickTime amongst other improvements.
Universal access is not strictly universal (look up “universal” in your Mac’s Dictionary) but it fits a lot of needs.

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