In 2005, Apple debuted VoiceOver for macOS and iOS. VoiceOver outputs text as audio, enabling people with disabilities to navigate and read content without relying on vision alone. As Apple continued to develop new technologies– such as the iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV media players– they continued to improve VoiceOver technology, including braille display support, special multi-touch interactions for trackpads, and more natural-sounding voice packages.
VoiceOver allows users with visual impairments, dyslexia, and other challenges to navigate the Apple device interface using gestures. It’s also useful for testing content for accessibility — but before using VoiceOver for testing, you’ll need to understand its features and limitations.
VoiceOver’s Role Among Popular Screen Readers
In a 2021 screen reader user survey published by WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), only 6.5% of respondents said that VoiceOver was their primary screen reader. However, the software was the third-most popular screen reader overall (following JAWS and NVDA), and it has a significant market share among Mac OS and iOS users.
There are a few distinct advantages to Apple’s VoiceOver software:
- Ease of access. VoiceOver is included in Apple devices by default, so no installation is required; the only user action required to enable VoiceOver is to turn it on in an Apple device’s settings.
- Native to macOS and iOS. JAWS and NVDA, the two leading competitors of VoiceOver, are Windows programs that aren’t tested for Apple devices.
- Highly configurable. Based on the needs and experience of the user, VoiceOver can be configured to provide detailed verbal descriptions of all icons at a given cursor location, with options to narrate all gesture interactions possible at that point. It’s also compatible with a number of refreshable braille displays.
- Support for over 30 languages. VoiceOver can output audio in any of the world’s most commonly spoken languages, including English, Mandarin, Hindi, Spanish, French, and Arabic.
- Consistent experience across devices. Since all Apple devices use the same basic VoiceOver technology, users with multiple Apple devices enjoy a seamless and frustration-free experience, regardless of whether they’re accessing content on a desktop computer or a mobile device.
Apple has consistently prioritized accessibility when updating its operating systems, and VoiceOver is an excellent resource for the disabilities community. While it’s not as popular as other screen readers, it’s free and easy to use — which also makes it an excellent tool for performing basic accessibility tests.
Testing Website Accessibility with Apple VoiceOver
By using VoiceOver, developers and designers can find some of the common barriers that affect real-life users. More importantly, using a screen reader can provide valuable perspective, which can help you make better decisions when creating content.
However, it’s important to remember that no single test can determine whether your site conforms with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the consensus standard for accessibility. Additionally, screen reader tests have limitations, which you’ll want to consider when developing your testing strategy.
If you’re not an experienced screen reader user, you may find that it takes extensive practice time to become familiar with VoiceOver. Even if you spend hours learning about the software’s features, you’re unlikely to achieve the mastery level of a regular user.
Additionally, different screen readers have different features and capabilities. Your content might be fully compatible with VoiceOver, but incompatible with JAWS, NVDA, or other assistive technologies. To provide the best possible experience for a wide variety of users, consider auditing your content for WCAG conformance using a combination of automated and manual evaluations.
Tips for Reviewing Content with VoiceOver
While testing with VoiceOver won’t guarantee conformance with WCAG, it’s still a helpful process — particularly if you’re testing interactive content or adding new features to your website.
Keep these tips in mind while examining web content with Apple VoiceOver:
- VoiceOver is frequently updated, so use the latest version of macOS available.
- Many screen reader users utilize keyboard shortcuts when navigating the web. Familiarize yourself with VoiceOver shortcuts before beginning your test.
- Test every item on the website: read text elements and headers, tab through links, read landmarks, and WAI-ARIA markup.
- Ensure content is understandable and operable without visual cues. On many Apple devices, a feature called Screen Curtain can make this evaluation easier by shutting down the screen, which allows you to interact with your content without your display.
- Remember, screen reader testing can be limited. Accessibility through VoiceOver does not guarantee accessibility through similar Windows or Linux screen readers. If you lack experience in working with VoiceOver or Apple devices, an experienced end user may have a different experience than you expect.
For more guidance, we recommend reading “Accessibility and Testing with VoiceOver OS (Mac),” published by BBC News in their guide to news accessibility.