Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Small changes

accessibility 2 min read

Both OS X and iOS include an accessibility technology called VoiceOver, which is a screen-reader for people with impaired vision. I have a currently-dormant condition such that I may one day become blind, so these technologies are very important to me, even though I don’t actively use them most of the time.

I like to keep tabs on accessibility features, because I might need them in earnest at some point. I wrote about that in my article about accessibility for iPhone and iPad apps, a few years ago.

I’m also a writer, and I hope I’ll always be able to do that job, no matter what becomes of my visual acuity. Yosemite (OS X 10.10) made a tweak to its accessibility implementation that reassured me.

When writing fiction, we commonly use two styles of text: plain, and italics (the use of boldface or underline is up to the author, but should be very rare indeed, and not within the bounds of normal narrative or dialogue). If you read my fiction style guide, you’ll see that italics are used in two main situations: emphasis, and when conveying a character’s thoughts. Here’s an example of the latter type:

She'll never forgive me, he thought.

There used to be an issue in OS X’s VoiceOver implementation which made writing fiction quite awkward - or rather, editing and proof-reading fiction. It was related to text attributes, which is the technical name for style information in text: the font, size, colour, and things like italics, underline, boldface, strikethrough, and more. We say that those styles are properties or “attributes” of the text.

VoiceOver lets you choose what it does when encountering a change in text attributes, such as when it’s reading some plain text and then arrives at an italicised section. Those options include just reading the text as if the attributes hadn’t changed, playing a tone to indicate the change, or reading the attributes aloud. I prefer the last option when screen-reading my fiction, because it makes the emphasis (or thought-delineation) explicit.

Previously, if you’d set VoiceOver to read the attributes when encountering a change, it would read all of the attributes - which was intrusive and annoying. Given the aforementioned extract, VoiceOver used to say something like this:

[Eighteen-point Georgia, Align left, Italic] She’ll never forgive me, [Eighteen-point Georgia, Align left, Plain] he thought.

Now, though, VoiceOver sensibly only reads out relevant changes to the text attributes, as follows:

[Italic] She’ll never forgive me, [Plain] he thought.

It sounds like a minor thing if you don’t use these technologies, but it’s an enormous reduction in frustration if you do. That’s what accessibility is about: reducing those points of friction. A small change - probably the work of mere minutes, for an engineer responsible for VoiceOver on the Mac - has brought a sense of reassurance, independence, and potential.

Accessibility functionality is a lifeline for those with differing abilities. You can find out more about the rich set of assistive features offered by OS X, iOS, and Watch OS.

If you’re an app developer, please take the time to test your software with the platform’s accessibility features. You can find more information at Apple’s Accessibility for Developers site.