How the new Touch Bar can open access for those with visual impairment

If you have impaired vision, you might have thought that the new Touch Bar on Apple’s MacBook Pro models was the last thing that might be of any help to you. When Apple preceded its launch with discussion of accessibility, you might be puzzled as to what that had to do with the product. In fact, they are closely related.

Accessibility is essential for all users and potential users. You can have the thinnest laptop with the fastest processor and the most gorgeous display – but if you can’t get best use out of it, it is a waste of technology and money. A large proportion of users either use optical correction (spectacles, lenses) or have sufficiently impaired vision as to make such use advisable. Most of us, as we grow older, find that our uncorrected vision deteriorates through life. Assisting all users with visual impairment, of greater or lesser degree, is thus an important goal. And that applies to the Touch Bar as much as to any other part of the MacBook Pro.

Image courtesy of Apple, © 2016 Apple Inc.

So how can you use the Touch Bar to make your MacBook Pro more accessible, and how can someone with visual impairment cope with the Touch Bar?

Apple has extended its VoiceOver support, in the Accessibility pane, to tell you what is on your Touch Bar. Furthermore, you can now toggle VoiceOver by holding the Command key and triple-pressing the Touch ID button at the far right of the Touch Bar.

With VoiceOver turned on, it will tell you the element under your finger when you move one finger over the Touch Bar. Further gestures supported include swiping to either side with one finger to move to the adjacent element, double-tap to activate an element, split-tap (touch with one finger, tap with another) to activate the touched element, and double-tap and hold to adjust sliders.

Zoom support, also in the Accessibility pane, has a new checkbox, in which you can enable Touch Bar zoom. This is most useful for showing a zoomed view of the Touch Bar on your display, which you can engage by touching and dragging a single finger on the Touch Bar. Additional gestures supported include Command and two-finger ‘pinch’ to change magnification, more complex synthesised taps produced by panning with one finger and tapping quickly with a second, and direct touch mode by holding your finger still on one spot on the Touch Bar.

If you have difficulty using the Touch Bar directly, you can display the bar on your screen, and interact with it using your normal pointer controls. To do this, first turn Switch Control on in the Accessibility pane, then in the Switch Control home panel on your display, click on Toggle Touch Bar using your preferred switch control.


Access to Accessibility Options has also been improved: you can open a control window, in which you can toggle VoiceOver, Zoom, Sticky Keys, and more, by triple-pressing the new Touch ID button at the far right of the Touch Bar. This is much easier than the normal keystroke command of Function-Option-Command-F5.

Full details are in Apple’s article here.

Some users may feel that Apple is missing an opportunity by not including a touchscreen on the new MacBook Pro. Although some users with specific sensory or motor impairments do find that touchscreens are a great help, macOS is not designed to work with them, and for the great majority of users a touchscreen would be an ergonomic disaster. Like switch controls, those who would benefit are much better off with a purpose-designed secondary touchscreen display, such as a Wacom Cintiq, or an iPad linked using third-party software.

If there’s still room on your Christmas or birthday list, don’t rule out a new MacBook Pro: you could well find its Touch Bar significantly improves its accessibility to you. Trying one out in a crowded Apple store is not a good way to find out. If you want to experience this properly, contact the store and arrange to have a proper demo session with them. I’m sure that you will find them very helpful.