The Accessibility Features of the Mac OSX Operating System

Students with documented physical, sensory and cognitive challenges are well-served by laws promoting technology use by individuals with disabilities (The Technology-Related Assistance Act of 1988).  However, many of the once-pricey technologies utilized by individuals with disabilities now come as standard features on all computers.  This post explores a number of the accessibility features available on the Mac OSX operating system and identifies how individuals with disabilities might use these technologies to enhance their computer and Internet experience.

Accessibility Features for the Blind and Visually Impaired

VoiceOver is a program whose text-to-voice functionality gives blind users access to written content.   More than just a simple screen reader, VoiceOver tells the user where they are on the screen, even allowing them to click boxes and other content through specified key strokes.  With VoiceOver, blind users can access the Internet with the same level of functionality as sighted users.  As a screen reader, VoiceOver may also prove useful to individuals with cognitive disabilities, ELL students and students with dyslexia.  While learning the VoiceOver key commands is not easy (or straightforward), the advantages it confers to blind users is well worth the time spent learning how to navigate with it.  Key commands can be circumvented (perhaps most notably for individuals lacking fine motor skills) in favor of using a virtual control called the rotor.  To use the rotor, users simply rotate two fingers around the mousepad, much like turning a dial.  This also takes a bit of time getting used to, but once mastered, web browsing (as well as other actions) can be executed more efficiently than through key commands.

For visually impaired users, Zoom allows for easy magnification of the screen (up to 20 times) either through the use of keyboard shortcuts or via scroll gestures, providing access to content without the use of scanners or closed-circuit television magnification systems.  Mac also comes standard with contrast options for individuals for whom changing the color contrast would improve readability.

Accessibility for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired

FaceTime, a video chat service, allows deaf users to read the lips (and facial expressions) of the person they are communicating with and iMessage is a texting service that comes standard with all Macs.  Closed captioning, available on movies, videos and podcasts, allows deaf users to read the spoken content they would otherwise miss.  Finally, deaf users can enable Screen Flash to let them know when an app needs their attention: instead of making a noise, the screen “flashes,” providing a visual cue.

Accessibility for the Physically Impaired

Physically impaired individuals often interact with computers through the use of joysticks or switches (Roblyer & Doering, 2013, p. 408).  Switch Control on Max OSX allows users to create their own custom panels and keyboards, thus enabling each user to create a “tailored” interface. Adaptive devices (such as joysticks and switches) also work within this system.  The Slow Key and Sticky Key options allow users to customize the keyboard to accommodate for their different needs and an Onscreen Keyboard is available for those who find it easier to type with a pointer, rather than via the physical keyboard.   Finally, Dictation is a voice-to-text technology that allows users to speak into their computer (rather than typing), a technology beneficial to individuals with significant physical impairments.  Setting the Dictation feature up is relatively simple, and using it within Microsoft Word is straightforward (once enabled, it is available in the “Edit” tab).  Dictation’s accuracy, however, is far from perfect: a spoken paragraph resulted in one to two errors per sentence.

In summary, computer manufacturers are keenly interested in making their products accessible to all users.  Taking a moment to familiarize yourself with the standard accessibility features on your classroom computers will not only benefit your disabled students–these technologies may also enhance learning for your struggling students as well.


Roblyer, M.D. & Doering, A.H.  (2013). Integrating educational technology into teaching (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, Pub. L.100-407. (1988). Retrieved from


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