Chapter 9. Customizing VoiceOver

This chapter explains how to customize your VoiceOver environment to best suit your needs. You’ll learn how to customize settings for voices, spoken details, braille displays, pronunciations, and more. You’ll also learn how to reset, export, and import your preferences, as well as use portable preferences and VoiceOver activities.

Customize voice settings

You can change the speaking voice used by VoiceOver, and change the settings, including the voice, rate, pitch, volume, and intonation. You can add compact or premium voices to the list of available voices. Use a keyboard command or VoiceOver Utility to customize voice settings.

Use a VoiceOver command
  1. To hear the first setting, press VO-Command-Right Arrow.

    If the last adjustment you made was to pitch, that’s the first setting you hear; for example, “Pitch 50 percent.”

  2. Continue to press VO-Command-Right Arrow until you hear the setting you want to adjust.
  3. To increase the setting’s value, press VO-Command-Up Arrow. To decrease the value, press VO-Command-Down Arrow.

    The new settings are applied only to the default voice.

Use VoiceOver Utility
  1. When VoiceOver is on, open VoiceOver Utility by pressing VO-F8.
  2. Click Speech in the category table, and then click Voices.
  3. In a Voice pop-up menu, choose a voice.
    • To choose one voice to speak everything, choose a voice from the Voice pop-up menu for the Default category.
    • To choose different voices for specific categories, such as attributes, click the disclosure triangle to the right of the Default voice options, and then choose a voice from the Voice pop-up menu for each category.
    • To add compact or premium voices to the pop-up menus, choose Customize, and then select the checkbox for each voice you want to add. When you select some voices, a yellow triangle appears, indicating those voices will be downloaded. Once downloaded, they appear in the menu.
  4. Set the rate, pitch, volume, and intonation for each voice in the fields to the right of the Voice pop-up menu.

    You can type a number in the fields or use the steppers next to each field to adjust the values.

If you install voices that are compatible with OS X in your ~/Library/Speech/Voices folder, they appear in the list of available voices. To make the voices available to other users who have access to your Mac, install the voices in /Library/Speech/Voices.

If you’re using portable preferences on a guest computer when you change voice settings, the settings are saved to the portable preferences drive and not to the guest computer.

Customize the verbosity level for speech or braille

By default, VoiceOver provides a high level of detail to help new Mac and VoiceOver users. You can choose a different default setting, and choose a verbosity level for specific controls, such as checkboxes or scroll areas, that you want to hear or receive on a refreshable braille display. You can also change the order in which VoiceOver provides the details.

  1. When VoiceOver is on, open VoiceOver Utility by pressing VO-F8.
  2. Click the Verbosity category, and then click Speech or, if you’re using a braille refreshable display, click Braille.
  3. Change verbosity levels.
    • To change the default verbosity level, choose High, Medium, or Low from the pop-up menu.
    • To change the verbosity level for specific items, click the disclosure triangle to the right of the default verbosity level. Then navigate the list of controls until you find the one you want to customize. Use the arrow keys to navigate to the control’s Verbosity pop-up menu, and then choose Default, Low, Medium, or High.

      To change the order in which VoiceOver provides the information, choose Customize from the Verbosity pop-up menu, and then follow the instructions in the pop up. Or you can navigate to Description and type the elements (Status, Type, or Name) you want to hear in the order you want to hear them.

Customize the Web rotor

You can change the Web rotor to list only the types of items, such as links or tables, that you use most often when browsing webpages.

  1. When VoiceOver is on, open VoiceOver Utility by pressing VO-F8.
  2. Click Web in the category table, and then click Web Rotor.
  3. Select the checkbox for each item you want to include in the Web rotor. To change the order of items in the rotor, select an item and then press Cmd-Up Arrow or Cmd-Down Arrow to move the item up or down in the list.

    For a description of the options in the pane, click the Help button in the lower-right corner.

The types of items you include in the rotor determine the statistics VoiceOver speaks in the webpage summary.

Customize how text and symbols are pronounced

You can specify how you want VoiceOver to pronounce certain text or symbols by providing substitutions for them. For example, you can substitute “8 oh 2 dot eleven b” for “8 zero 2 point one one b.” Or substitute “Wink Smiley” for “semicolon dash right parenthesis.”

Add a pronunciation
  1. When VoiceOver is on, open VoiceOver Utility by pressing VO-F8.
  2. Click Speech in the category table, click Pronunciation, and then click Add (+) in the lower-left corner of the pane.
  3. In the new row, type the text whose pronunciation you want to customize, press Tab to move to the Substitution column, and then type how you want VoiceOver to pronounce the text.
  4. If you want to specify an app where VoiceOver should use the pronunciation, choose the app from the pop-up menu.

    The menu lists open apps and Find Apps, so you can select an app that isn’t open. To use the pronunciation in any app, leave All Apps selected.

  5. To have capitalization ignored, select the Ignore Case checkbox.
Edit a pronunciation

Do one of the following:

Remove a pronunciation

Select the pronunciation, and then click Remove (-) in the lower-left corner of the pane.

You can quickly customize pronunciations by using the Commanders to assign the Add Pronunciation command to a key or gesture. The command displays a dialog where you can add a new pronunciation, which is then added to the list in the Pronunciation pane in VoiceOver Utility.

Create custom labels

You can create or rename the label for user interface elements (such as images, buttons, tables, and more) and for links. You can export your custom labels to a file to share with other users.

  1. Position the VoiceOver cursor on the element or link for which you want to create a label.
  2. Press VO-/.
  3. In the dialog that’s displayed, type the label you want to use and press Return.

When you create a custom label, VoiceOver associates pertinent information about the element or link and its location with your label. If the element or link changes in a significant way, such as moving to a new location, VoiceOver may not recognize it as the same element or link. If this happens, re-create the custom label.

You can’t create labels for scroll areas, toolbars, or groups.

When you import a preference file that contains custom labels, VoiceOver merges those labels with your current set of custom labels.

Assign VoiceOver commands to keys

If your Mac has a numeric keypad, you can use the NumPad Commander to assign VoiceOver commands to numeric keypad keys, so you can enter the commands using only the numeric keypad. You can use the Keyboard Commander to assign VoiceOver commands to keyboard keys.

The NumPad Commander already has some basic navigation and interaction commands assigned to some keys. The Keyboard Commander has scripts and shortcuts for opening apps assigned to some keys. To use the default key assignments, just enable the Commanders. You can change the defaults or add your own.

  1. When VoiceOver is on, open VoiceOver Utility by pressing VO-F8.
  2. Click Commanders in the category table, click NumPad or Keyboard, and then in the NumPad or Keyboard pane, select the checkbox to enable the Commander.
  3. Choose a modifier key.

    Using a modifier key with numpad keys is optional; you must use a modifier key with keyboard keys.

    In the Keyboard Commander pane, choose the Left Option key, the Right Option key, or both Option keys as the modifier key.

  4. Interact with the Commander table and navigate down the key column until you hear the numpad or keyboard key you want to assign a command to.
  5. Move to the Command column, open the pop-up menu of commands, and then use the arrow keys to navigate the available commands.

    A screen shot of the NumPad Commander. The VoiceOver Utility window, divided vertically into two parts. A sidebar on the left lists categories, preceded by an icon, and an area on the right shows options for the currently selected category. Commanders is the current category in the sidebar and the NumPad pane is selected on the right. At the top right of the NumPad pane is the Enable NumPad Commander checkbox, which is selected. To the right of that is the Modifier pop-up menu where No Modifier is selected. Below the checkbox and pop-up menu is a table with two columns, from left to right: NumPad Key, Command. The third row is selected and contains 3 in the NumPad Key column and on the right is a pop-up menu of command categories for assigning a command to the 3 key. The command categories from top to bottom are: General, Information, Navigation, Text, Web, Find, Tables, Size and Position, Audio, Braille, Visuals, Hot spots, Custom Commands. To the right of each category name is an arrow for displaying the commands in each category.

  6. When you hear the command you want to assign to the current numpad or keyboard key, press Return to select it.

When the NumPad Commander is on, the NumPad Commander commands are included in the VoiceOver Commands menu. To display the Commands menu, press VO-H-H.

You can use the Custom Commands menu to assign scripts and Automator workflows to keys. For example, you could run a script (such as a Perl, Ruby, Python, or AppleScript script) when you press a specific key on the keyboard.

Reset preferences

If you changed your VoiceOver preferences, you can reset all or specific preferences to their default values.

Important:You should export your preferences before you reset them, so you have a backup copy in case you want to use them again.

  1. When VoiceOver is on, open VoiceOver Utility by pressing VO-F8.
  2. Open the File menu, and then choose the reset command for the preferences you want to reset.

    You can choose to reset basic, custom (such as hot spots or Keyboard Commander key assignments), or all preferences.

If your portable preferences are on a removable storage drive and you reset basic or all VoiceOver preferences on your Mac, VoiceOver no longer recognizes the drive and doesn’t sync VoiceOver preferences on your Mac and the drive. To sync VoiceOver preferences again, you must set up the portable preferences drive again.

Export and import preferences

You can export all or specific VoiceOver preferences to a file that you can use as a backup copy.

If you want to easily use your settings on other Mac computers and keep an up-to-date copy of your current settings always available, use portable preferences.

Export preferences
  1. In VoiceOver Utility, choose File > Export Preferences or press Shift-Command-E.
  2. Type a name for the file, and then choose the folder where you want to save the file.

    To choose from more folders, click the disclosure arrow after the filename.

  3. From the Export pop-up menu, choose the type of preferences you want to export.
  4. Click Save.

    The default filename indicates the type of preferences exported and has the filename extension “voprefs.” The file will not reflect changes you make to preferences after you export it.

Import preferences
  1. In VoiceOver Utility, choose File > Import Preferences or press Shift-Command-I.
  2. Browse for and select the preferences file you want to import.
  3. Click Open.

    VoiceOver replaces the current preferences of that type with those in the file. If you’re importing web spots or labels, VoiceOver merges them with your existing web spots or labels.

You can import preference files from VoiceOver in Mac OS X 10.5 or later. If a preference existed in Mac OS X 10.5 or later but no longer exists in OS X 10.8, the preference is not imported.

Use portable preferences

You can make your VoiceOver preferences “portable” by storing them on a removable storage device. You can use portable preferences to easily use your settings on other Mac computers and to keep an up-to-date copy of your current settings always available.

Set up the portable preferences drive

Do this set of steps once for each removable drive you want to use.

  1. Insert the removable drive in your Mac.
  2. When VoiceOver is on, open VoiceOver Utility by pressing VO-F8, and then choose File > Set Up Portable Preferences or click Set Up in the General category table.
  3. Select a drive from the list of removable drives and click OK.

    VoiceOver creates a VoiceOver folder on the drive.

Use the portable preferences drive

When you connect your portable preferences drive to a Mac, VoiceOver detects the drive and asks if you want to use it. How VoiceOver uses the portable preferences drive depends on the Mac you’re using:

If you’re using the Mac where you set up the drive: Any changes you make to VoiceOver preferences until you eject the drive are automatically saved to the drive. For example, if you increase the speech rate, your change is instantly saved to the portable preferences drive.

If you’re using another Mac (as a guest): VoiceOver uses the preferences stored on the drive. Any changes you make to VoiceOver preferences until you eject the drive are automatically saved to the drive and not to the guest computer.

The next time you use the drive on the Mac where it was set up, VoiceOver synchronizes preferences on the Mac and the drive, based on the most recent change to a preference.

Stop using the portable preferences drive

When you’re done, eject the portable preferences drive using the Finder, or click Stop in the General category table in VoiceOver Utility (in this case, the drive is not ejected).

If you choose not to use the portable preferences drive when VoiceOver asks you, but later want to use it, open VoiceOver Utility and click Start in the General category table. If you choose to always use the portable preferences drive, but later want to use it only sometimes, delete the preferences file from the drive, and then set up the portable preferences drive again.

You can export all or specific VoiceOver settings as a file to save or share. This file is not updated and will not reflect changes you make to preferences after exporting. You can import preference files from VoiceOver in OS X 10.5 and later.

If you have portable preferences on a removable storage drive and you reset basic or all VoiceOver preferences on your Mac, VoiceOver no longer recognizes the portable preferences on that drive and doesn’t sync VoiceOver preferences on your Mac and the drive. To sync VoiceOver preferences again, you must set up the portable preferences drive again.

Use VoiceOver activities

You can use VoiceOver activities to create groups of preferences for specific uses. For example, you can create an activity to use a certain voice and faster speaking rate when you’re shopping online catalogs, and create a second activity to use a different voice and slower speaking rate when you’re reading online newspapers. You can switch activities manually or have VoiceOver switch automatically based on the apps you use.

Set up activities
  1. When VoiceOver is on, open VoiceOver Utility by pressing VO-F8.
  2. Click Activities in the category table, and then click Add (+) to create an activity.
  3. Type a name for the activity, such as “Online Shopping.”

    To rename an activity, select the activity in the table, press Enter, and then type a new name.

  4. For each preference you want to customize for this activity, select the checkbox and then click Set.

    To show all the preferences you can include, click the disclosure triangle to the far right of Hot Spots.

  5. To have VoiceOver automatically use the activity for certain apps, click the Select Apps button, and then choose one or more apps from the list, or browse for apps.

    An app can be associated with only one activity. If you select an app that’s associated with another activity, you’re asked if you want to change it.

    To disassociate an app, select it again; the checkmark next to its name is removed.

Use an activity