Mac Accessibility

Mac versus PC. It is a perennial debate and one that is currently raging in response to the high profile Get a Mac advertising campaign, which coincided with the launch of the new Windows operating system, Vista. Where does assistive technology fit into this discussion? What choices are open to Mac users who, for instance, require speech output, or need to access their Mac using an alternative input device, like a switch?

Below I’ll briefly touch on what has been available previously and move on to look at a range of new assistive software developed specifically for Mac OSX by AssistiveWare whom I discovered at the BETT educational technology show in January. At BRITE we have more information on Mac accessibility and can provide opportunities to try software and obtain training. If you work in one of Scotland’s FE colleges and would like to know more please get in touch with us at

For some time now many assistive software titles have only been available for PC, for example, Dragon Naturally Speaking, Jaws, SuperNova and ZoomText. Where a Mac version of assistive software does exist, it may not have all the features available to PC users, e.g. TextHelp Read and Write for Mac. While the Windows operating system can run on a Mac using BootCamp, it’s a laborious and likely fruitless method to attempt to install assistive software designed for PC onto a Mac this way.

Some titles have been available for both PC and Mac for a while, for example, the concept mapping software Inspiration and language support tool SOLO (which incorporates Co:Writer, Write:Outloud, Draft:Builder and Read:Outloud). For Mac users with dyslexia and other difficulties it’s worth checking out the new ClaroRead for Mac software, or Kurzweil 3000 for Mac.

There has also been a growth in third-party software designed specifically for Mac users, including iListen, a speech recognition programme that does a good job – although as a new product which has not enjoyed the benefit of Dragon’s many years of development, users may find it falls short of the accuracy and sophistication of a programme like Naturally Speaking.

To an extent, Apple addressed the disparity itself by building decent accessibility features into OSX v10.4 Tiger, including a screenreader (VoiceOver) and magnification tool (Zoom). While these are really quite impressive for built-in features, the poor quality of the synthesised voices that come with a Mac is disappointing. However, the next Mac OS (v10.5 Leopard) promises to have vastly improved system voices and even support for refreshable Braille displays.

At the BETT educational technology show in January, I had the opportunity to discover some new assistive software, purposely designed for use with Macs. AssistiveWare is a Dutch company whose key products address a range of access needs:

Speech Output

VisioVoice is for users who are blind or have low vision. This software comprises of a talking interface, large cursors, image and text zoom. It uses Infovox iVox high-quality multilingual voices and also allows the user to create audio files and iTunes tracks from text.

ConvenienceWare TextParrot is a multilingual document and selection reader, which is useful for students who would rather listen to text. The speech output works in text, Word, HTML and PDF files and also works in Safari to convert text on web pages into speech. Like VisioVoice, it creates audio files and iTunes tracks from text.

The high quality Infovox iVox voices can also be purchased separately to use with VoiceOver.

Physical Access

For users with limited mobility, AssistiveWare have two options that allow the Mac to be controlled using an alternative input device e.g. a simple USB switch or a head-operated mouse. KeyStrokes is an advanced on-screen keyboard (including word prediction) and offering more features to control the computer is SwitchXS, an innovative switch access solution, which combines an on-screen keyboard and control panel

Language and Communication

Proloquo is AssistiveWare’s tool to support language and communication. It turns the Mac into a sophisticated communication aid and includes multilingual speech feedback.

All of AssistiveWare’s products are available on a try-before-you-buy basis and free downloads can be obtained from their website. Software can also be purchased online (prices are in Euros) or from the UK dealers listed on their website.

NB: Even if you are not looking to buy software or not even particularly interested in Macs but would like to know more about the potential uses of assistive technology, the AssistiveWare website has a really interesting Community section which includes user experiences, a newsletter written for and by users and videos demonstrating alternative access and showing exciting example of how it can be used. (Videos require Quicktime).

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