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Hearing What's on Your Screen with Apple VoiceOver

Apple’s VoiceOver is a screen reader that’s designed to make using a Mac easier by speaking the contents of the screen. Although VoiceOver may seem a simple and obvious idea, for someone trying to use a computer in this way, a poorly designed screen reader is almost useless. A user wants the screen reader to speak the text of interest at the moment and as little else as possible. The user also wants to be able to speed up the reading as much as possible without losing intelligibility. Otherwise, work becomes painfully slow.

VoiceOver comes with a several customizable options. It also offers several different voices, including Alex, a voice that’s engineered to work well when sped up. The VoiceOver Utility Verbosity screen contains eight options in the sidebar, each with many options:

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  • General lets you control portable preferences.

  • Verbosity controls how much VoiceOver says in various situations, such as when it encounters a misspelled word. For example, a user might want a different behavior when reading a memo she received versus proofreading her own writing.

  • Speech lets you choose among some two dozen virtual speakers and adjust their settings. Most are more fun than productive. Voices with real names, like Alex or Kathy, tend to be more suited for serious use than nicknames like Bubbles, but you can find exceptions. The Pronunciation tab lets you customize how special characters, initialisms, abbreviations, and so on are spoken.

  • Navigation determines what VoiceOver does as you move around the screen and change focus.

  • Web controls how you hear the content of Web pages.

  • Audio Controls sound output.

  • Visuals controls how VoiceOver elements, such as its cursor, are shown on-screen.

  • Numpad Commander lets you assign special functions to the numeric keypad keys.

In the Hearing pane of the Universal Access dialog, you can tell OS X to flash the screen when it issues an alert, a handy feature for people with full hearing. You also find a button that takes you to the Sound system preferences pane, where you can adjust the volume of your Mac’s audio. You can generally do that using your keyboard as well.

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