Accessibility Features on a MacBook Pro

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apple-loveMy computer of choice is an Apple MacBook Pro running the current version of OSX, El Capitan. I also have an iPhone, iPad, and an Apple TV. Apple prides itself on its accessibility features and assistive technology. This company is very vested in helping people with disabilities access the world around them through their technology. As Tim Cook puts it, “We design our products to surprise and delight everyone who uses them, and we never, ever analyze the return on investment. We do it because it is just and right, and that is what respect for human dignity requires, and it’s a part of Apple I’m especially proud of” (as cited in Ritchie, 2014).

I have a student who is severely disabled. The school has provided him with an iPad because of the accessibility features built into the IOS. Through my two years working with this student, I have learned a lot about the assistive technology that Apple provides. While I was aware that many of the same features are built into my Macbook, I had never had reason to research them until now.

For people with vision difficulties, the OSX has several features:

  • VoiceOver – In simplistic terms, VoiceOver is a screenreader but in reality, it is so much more. It will read whatever you have placed the cursor on, in a voice of your choosing, in over 40 languages. It works with apps and can even work with a Braille keyboard.
  • Zoom – magnifies the screen up to twenty times.
  • Dictation – allows the user to talk instead of type.
  • Cursor Size – easily makes the cursor large enough to see. Swiping rapidly on the trackpad enlarges it briefly for easier detection. I have to admit; I have spent some time making the cursor bigger just because it is fun to see.
  • Contrast Options – the user can invert the colors or use grayscale to enhance visibility. I use my computer so much that my eyes get strained, even though I keep my screen as dark as possible. Inverting the colors helps reduce the irritation.
  • Siri – while Siri does not yet exist in OS X, there are rumblings out there that she will be a feature in the near future (Gurman, 2016).  This will increase the already impressive accessibility features by allowing users to tell the computer what they need and have it react accordingly.

Users that have auditory difficulties also have a wide range of features. As a person who does have issues with hearing (I have had seven surgeries to date on my ears), I use many of these.

  • Face Time – video messaging that allows for the use of sign language and lip reading. This is a great feature even if you don’t have hearing issues. It’s nice to put a face with the voice.
  • iMessage – text messaging system. Because all of my technology is Apple-based, I can text anyone from my iPad, iPhone or even my laptop. I much prefer to text than talk, as I then do not have to pretend that after the third time I have asked someone to repeat something, I understood them.
  • Screen Flash – instead of an audio cue, the screen will flash to get the user’s attention. I use this at work as I do not hear my phone when it is on vibrate. My laptop screen will flash when something requires my attention, such as an incoming text message.
  • Mono Audio – for those with hearing problems, both audio channels will play in both ears through a headset. The user can adjust the volume in each ear independently. This was a feature that I did not know about. My right ear is worse than my left, and it seems every time I get sick, it settles in that ear, making it even harder to hear. It really made a difference allowing me to play everything through both the left and right earpiece. It was also a relief to be able to turn the right earpiece volume up while keeping the left earpiece volume low. I will definitely be using this feature a lot in the future.

Users with physical or motor challenges will find the following feature helpful. I have explored many of these on my student’s iPad but had not played with them on my Mac.

  • Switch Control – this feature allows someone who cannot physically interact with technology to use various devices to control the computer. My student uses a joystick, but that is still hit or miss for him. We are currently looking into a head switch to see if that will increase his accuracy.
  • Slow Keys – this feature adjusts how sensitive the keyboard is. The user can set the keys to respond to lighter touches.
  • Sticky Keys – this is a feature that I had heard of but never explored. Instead of pressing keys simultaneously, such as command-print, turning on sticky keys lets the user press one key at a time. This will be very helpful for my student, as he cannot press multiple keys together.
  • Onscreen Keyboard – this feature places a keyboard up on the screen, allowing the user to use some type of pointing device to type.
  • Automator – allows tasks that require multiple steps to be executed with just one click. It works like the coding blocks we used in class for the Hour of Code, just drag the actions into a workflow and the computer will perform them. They can also be recorded and saved.

There are also features built in for people with learning disabilities. As a special education teacher, I often use these features with my students. They give them a measure of autonomy, while not making it obvious to their peers that they have a learning disability.

  • Simple Finder – this feature makes the dock on my Mac much less cluttered. It takes it down to three folders and allows me to limit the apps that can be accessed. This would be helpful for students who are easily distracted or overwhelmed.
  • Dictionary – Apple has a dictionary built into the operating system. Highlight and right-click on a word and the user is given the option to look up the definition. This is a great feature for many of my students. Learning to find the definition of a new word by themselves is an important life skill.
  • Text-to-Speech – this feature is the one I would use the most with my students. The majority of my self-contained students have the accommodation of material read to them. It is impossible to read material to everyone at the perfect speed. Some need it repeated multiple times; others work ahead because I am reading too slowly. Text-to-speech will read a highlighted section to the user. I can choose the voice to be male or female, and the rate can be adjusted. As a plus for ELL students, this feature supports over 40 different languages.
  • Word Completion – sometimes my students will be unable to pull a word out of their heads. They will know what it starts with, but then they get stuck. Word completion allows the user to type the first few letters, press escape, and the computer will suggest words that meet the criteria.
  • Summarize – most of my students are easily overwhelmed by a lot of words. They will often give up without even trying. This feature allows the teacher to shorten passages, all the way down to one sentence if that is what is needed. This feature allows students with focusing problems or students with learning disabilities to get the information in smaller segments.

These accessibility features allow people with disabilities to overcome some of the challenges they face, often without being obvious. I am currently taking EdTech 503, and my design project is about creating narrated tests using VoiceThread. It is impossible to read math tests to a group of students, and our current system of stigmatizing students by having them take their tests in a different area is unacceptable. According to McLeskey, Waldron, & Redd , “rather than treating differences as something that need to be addressed in segregated environments, the premise is that individual differences should be considered an ordinary feature of inclusive classrooms and addressed in ways that are a typical part of classroom instruction (as cited in Roblyer, 2014). One piece of my project is a video of my students’ thoughts on this process. It was eye-opening and heartbreaking to listen to their feelings. If you are interested, the storyboard with their original comments is here: acmistoryboard – The Reality of Questions Read. The more we can level the playing field for these students, the better the chance they will stay in school and graduate. If we can use technology to level that playing field without singling out IEP students, even better.


Gurman, M. (2016, February, 24). Apple plans Siri for Mac as tentpole feature for this fall’s OS X 10.12 launch. Retrieved from 

Ritchie, R. (2014, July, 9). Apple and accessibility: Pushing back against unacceptable realities. Retrieved from

Roblyer, M. (2016). Integrating Educational Technology into Teaching (7th ed.) Massachusetts: Pearson.



4 thoughts on “Accessibility Features on a MacBook Pro

    Caroline Murray said:
    April 16, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    Hi Lisa,
    I love that you pulled that quote from Roblyer about integrating accessible technologies seamlessly into the classroom in order to allow students with disabilities the opportunity to participate in class without needing to be segregated in order to get their work done. I try to do everything I can to accommodate students in my classroom but what I have not been doing is helping them integrate into the class as you’ve pointed out. My school could definitely do more to support students with learning differences and providing work stations in each classroom might be a good place to start. Thanks for your insight!
    Caroline Murray


    solo2384 said:
    April 17, 2016 at 3:19 am

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I, too, looked at accessibility features on my MacBook Air. I had no idea we had so many features on our devices! I enjoyed looking at the features from your perspective.


    benjaminkillam said:
    April 19, 2016 at 2:34 am

    I never would have thought to use word completion as an accessibility tool for students with learning disabilities! While this feature and its partner, auto correct, can be frustrating or comical sometimes it does provide a great assistance to students who struggle to find the words and/or spell them correctly.


    Gail Davis: EDTECH Learning Log said:
    April 19, 2016 at 5:02 am

    Wow, great blog on assistive technology features! I like how you described each feature and which students would benefit from its use. Are there any features for Math that you’d like to see created or could suggest to a programmer?


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