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Accessibility on the Mac: Trouble in Paradise

By now, Mac users are mature enough to admit that the Macintosh isn’t better than Windows in every respect. I go back 20 years in accessibility and disability issues, and I consider myself nothing less than a Macintosh separatist, so it pains me to say that pretty much any computer user with a relevant disability ought to be using Windows, not a Mac.

Ponder that for a moment. Can you think of any other entire population that should not use Macs, that should actively favour Windows machines? (Grandparents? Muslims? Icelanders? Orthodontists?) Can you think of another group that is almost completely locked out of Macintosh use, but well situated to work on Windows?

Did you even know this was a problem?

It wasn’t always this way, and things may improve in the Mac OS X era, but at the moment we’re facing major roadblocks when it comes to disabled people’s use of the Macintosh: The issues involved with accessibility are poorly understood and elicit fear and resistance, while at the same time the actual hardware and software a disabled Mac user may need is difficult to come by and quite often inferior to what the other platform can provide. Moreover, Apple has neglected disabled Mac users for years, and is set to make a major blunder with Mac OS X.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Access 101 — With computers having expanded beyond pure computing to become communication devices, people with disabilities want to use computers in ever-increasing numbers. However, certain disabilities interfere with computer use – or, more accurately, the way computers are made today presents barriers to some disabled people.

How many people with disabilities are there? It’s simply impossible to find reliable numbers on the many relevant disabilities worldwide. The forms disability takes are so widespread that even defining disability is tricky. (I once worked for a government project team that spent two years trying to do just that.) But as just one example, the American Federation of the Blind estimates there are 900,000 blind or visually-impaired computer users in the United States.

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Moving away from statistics, here’s a useful way of looking at things: is your disability severe enough to affect your use of a Macintosh? In some cases, the answer is a clear no. A single-leg amputee, for example, has no barriers at all to using a Mac. But other disability groups do face barriers.

  • If you’re blind or visually-impaired, how do you read and interpret the text, graphics, menus, dialog boxes, and other visual details on the screen? How do you read the legends on the keyboard? How do you read software documentation? What about multimedia? How do you surf the Web?

  • If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, how will Macintosh alert sounds actually manage to alert you? How do you benefit from soundtracks found in multimedia?

  • If you have a mobility impairment that prevents you from moving the mouse or typing on a keyboard, what do you do?

Accessibility is about accommodating characteristics a person cannot change by providing options.

Adaptive Technology — Even five years ago, it was quite possible to find a wide range of so-called adaptive technology – hardware or software designed to eliminate barriers to using a Mac. The "institutional support" for the entire issue of accessibility was also worlds apart from what we have now. Starting in 1985, Apple’s Worldwide Disability Solutions Group (WDSG) worked on everything from Apple II accessibility to online communities for disabled kids. Crucially, the WDSG also worked with developers to produce adaptive technology and to make existing software and hardware accessible (with, admittedly, patchy results). But Steve Jobs fired the five-person WDSG in January 1998, saving a paltry million dollars annually.

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Since then, despite Apple’s financial resurgence, accessibility has had no official champion inside Apple and none of the official importance an entire department provides. All you can find now are a few skimpy, feel-good pages on the education section of Apple’s Web site. (The emphasis on education seems to imply that disabled Mac users cease to be disabled once they graduate from school.)


Meanwhile, Microsoft and even IBM have maintained and expanded their own accessibility divisions, keeping up with software and hardware development and crucial consciousness-raising among developers.



Shutting down the WDSG coincided with the ascendancy of the Internet, which suddenly added entire new layers of inaccessibility, particularly for blind computer users. (I’ll explore Internet accessibility in a future article.)

Further, people with disabilities have legal rights. In the United States, Canada, Australia, most of Western Europe, and other nations, it’s illegal to fire or refuse to hire a qualified disabled person (among other related rights). Employers are required to "accommodate" disabled employees. That can involve altering the job itself, providing adaptive technology, offering different work hours, or any of a range of modifications that do not threaten the existence or nature of the business. That might end up meaning that even all-Mac shops would be forced to buy Windows machines for disabled employees. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act is the primary law enshrining rights for people with disabilities. In other countries, it’s typical for human-rights legislation to cover disability issues.


Ignorance and Fear — Disability is commonplace in human society, but, just as it is often difficult to expand your sphere of friends outside your own race or religious group, it’s unusual for a non-disabled person to have a disabled friend. People lack real-world role models – actual people they know and trust from whom they can learn about disability.

And, in any event, even if you have a deaf friend, neither you nor your friend necessarily knows anything about blindness or paralysis. Disability is too diverse. The depictions of disability on television and film are notoriously hackneyed, stereotyped, and simply inaccurate, so take them with a grain of salt. Dealing with people with disabilities, then, requires you to contemplate being disabled yourself. That’s tough for many people.

There’s no quick fix for the anxiety issue. It takes person-to-person acquaintanceship and simply getting used to disability over time. The integration of disabled people into the workforce aids in that goal.

The Accessible Future — In my next article, I’ll run through the relevant disabilities and provide a buyer’s guide to the adaptive technology available to reduce barriers on the Mac. There isn’t a lot.

Simply put, everything is better on Windows when it comes to accessibility. You’ve got support from Microsoft itself, the fact of corporate and government standardization on Windows as a guaranteed sales base, and the simple momentum of the world’s most popular, if not best, operating system.

You have, moreover, many more software and hardware products. Nearly all the vendors of Mac accessibility products sell the same products for Windows systems and also many other Windows-only products. Some vendors and distributors, like Madentec and Prentke-Romich, are effectively Windows-only and offer large catalogues of products.



Do a Web search for adaptive technology vendors and the resulting list is notable for its length and its near-exclusion of Macs (and, indeed, anything other than Windows). And we can all remember the course of development of continuous speech recognition on personal computers: Windows first, Mac later. That’s quite representative of adaptive technology in general.

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Windows adaptive technology runs the gamut from word-prediction software that helps kids read and write to sophisticated combinations of screen readers and Braille displays, letting a blind person simultaneously hear text that’s presented on-screen and read system commands (like menus and status-line messages) in Braille. Ironically enough, an onscreen keyboard included with Windows 2000, developed by Madentec, started out as a Mac-only program.


Although it may be a bit much to expect a blind computer user to retouch JPEGs in Photoshop or produce a set of PowerPoint slides, adaptive technology makes it possible for people with a wide range of disabilities to perform pretty much every computer task encountered in an ordinary office… on Windows, at least.

OS Hooks — There’s also the issue of system "hooks." It is quite possible to design an operating system that works elegantly with adaptive technology, but the operating system must be actively designed for that purpose, providing hooks, or background functions, that programs like screen readers can use directly.

As a parallel, think of Macintosh menu commands: You can select Quit from the File menu or press Command-Q (or Command and then Q, if you have the right adaptive technology). The system provides a hook for a keyboard equivalent of a menu command. Access provisions work the same way, effectively giving you more than one way to accomplish a task.

It’s necessary to build access provisions into the operating system from the beginning; retrofitting is always more complicated and spotty. Microsoft has less than a perfect record in this respect, but at least they’re trying, with something called Active Accessibility, among other efforts.


The holy grail is a set of system hooks that work with all software and hardware. The reality is that manufacturers of adaptive technology have to program their own hooks and workarounds. Can you say "reinventing the wheel?"

Lou Grosso of Alva Access Group tells me that, based on his conversations with Apple’s own developers, the first full release of Mac OS X and its candy-coated Aqua interface will contain no access hooks at all, but that subsequent releases might. (Apple did not respond to several requests for comment.) As far as Apple is concerned, does lickability trump accessibility?

Over here in the land of the overlapping minorities (Mac users who also are disabled), things will probably get worse before they get better. Paradoxically, several developers contacted for this story hinted or stated outright that development for Mac OS X will reinvigorate their product lines. That seems dubious at best; even some die-hard Mac supporters are not exactly salivating at the prospect of an entirely new operating system. If adaptive technology developers found it too expensive or too difficult to develop for a platform that’s been around for 16 years, how can we expect a sudden surge of development for an operating system that’s still in beta?

Moreover, Mac OS X is more visual than any previous Mac operating system. Contrary to popular belief (among, say, Web authors), it is not necessary to reduce visual complexity to make a system accessible. But the lack of accessibility hooks in Mac OS X is a serious issue, and, in the twenty-first century, brand-new operating systems simply should not exist without thorough access provisions. It’s unforgivable.

Forcing Apple’s Hand — Steve Jobs has been in no hurry to reinstate the Worldwide Disability Solutions Group or something akin to it. (One Apple source did explain that the company employs an assistive technology partnership manager, but that could not be confirmed.) That may, however, have to change. The U.S. government has set deadlines in 2001 by which desktop computers, government Web sites, kiosks, telephone systems, and other forms of information technology must be accessible.

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There isn’t a big-name software or hardware vendor that doesn’t sell to the U.S. government, including Apple. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory alone reportedly has 12,000 Macs (and provides a page of Mac baseline equipment standards).

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Both existing computers and new purchases will be covered by the accessibility regulations throughout the U.S. government. Without significant recommitment to accessibility, Apple might lose government accounts altogether.

Accessibility on the Mac has been neglected and damaged by Apple’s own actions and that perennial bugbear, "market forces." A great deal of catching up is in order. Only time will tell how Apple will respond to this pressing need. In my next article, I’ll offer an adaptive-technology buyer’s guide to help you find today’s accessibility solutions for the Mac.

[Joe Clark is a former journalist in Toronto who’s followed, written about, and worked in the disability field for two decades. Explore his many online accessibility resources at his Web site.]


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