My Quest for the Perfect Word Processor: Act Two

Photograph of a winding path through a dark forest. This is a quest, after all.

In Act One of this epic tale, our hero had fallen on dark days. Forced away from Mellel, his comfortable word-processing home, he began to wander the land seeking new possibilities and brighter horizons.

Now we see him revisiting familiar territory. Microsoft Word for Mac 2011 is already installed on his machine, after all. But it too offers only disappointment. Hazardous to navigate and full of unmarked and unlabeled dangers, it is a VoiceOver nightmare. 

He considers other options: Pages, VoiceDream Writer. These are friendly and accessible, but nowhere near full-featured enough for a dissertation. He falls to using TextEdit—at least it works well with VoiceOver. Perhaps he will write his whole dissertation in plain text and typeset it with LaTeX. But of course this is absurd. Navigating a document as long as a dissertation in plain text would be next to impossible. Plus he would have to learn LaTeX, so…

And then at last, on the verge of despair, he finds hope. There is a new version of Microsoft Word for Mac, and it has been substantially rebuilt and reconfigured. Word has always had features galore, of course, and is capable of handling large projects like books and dissertations. In the new 2016 version, the development team has increased VoiceOver compatibility and improved support for Hebrew (as long as the Hebrew keyboard is used). 

Almost all of the buttons, tabs, and menus are clearly labeled for VoiceOver, and navigating the interface is relatively easy. Setting VoiceOver Hotspots for the ribbon and main text pane makes it even more painless. The only problem with this is that the Hotspots for the ribbon are document-specific, so if you have two documents open at the same time, you have to make sure you go to the correct ribbon. 

Navigating long documents can also be cumbersome. You can navigate by page or line, but it would be very useful to be able to navigate within your document structure. The VoiceOver rotor could come in handy here, connecting the headings menu to document headings and allowing users to skip back and forth that way.

The biggest bug in Word for Mac 2016 comes when documents get long and cover multiple pages. If you make changes to early pages in the document that affect later pages, VoiceOver can get confused about what it should be reading . When you use the “Read Line” or “Read Paragraph” commands, it will read the wrong line or paragraph, or start or stop too early. When this happens, closing and reopening the document solves the problem, It is not insurmountable, but it does get very tedious. 

Track Changes and Comments—two critical tools in academic work—are also difficult to use, but these are acknowledged issues that Word is working to improve.

So our hero takes up this tool, imperfect though it is, and sets his hand to the work. But his vigilance remains constant, and from afar he hears rumours of a new kind of tool: a powerful writing suite with deep VoiceOver compatibility. Tune in next time, brave readers, as our hero encounters…the Scrivener.


(This  epic post reviewed MS Word for Mac 2016 Version 15.24. Any subsequent  improvements to accessibility in later versions are not covered)

My Quest for the Perfect Word Processor: Act One

An image of a big, unlabeled red button.

“Button. You are currently on a button. To click this button, press Control-Option-Space.”

Uh oh. This is the sound of VoiceOver non-compliance, and the first time I heard it, my heart sank. I am still new at VoiceOver, but I was even newer then, just learning basic commands and navigation skills. I was testing the various apps I use on a regular basis, experimenting to see how I would use them when I could no longer use my sight. VoiceOver is the main accessibility feature on Mac—it identifies objects and reads text on the screen, and allows the user to control everything with the keyboard and trackpad. So what is the problem? It’s helpful to know you’re on a button, right? It is, but it would also be nice to know what the button does. Exploring sloppy apps like this is like breaking into a super-villain’s secret lair. There are buttons—oh so many buttons—but none of them are labelled. Does this button open a trap door to the dungeons, or order minions to bring coffee? Does this button save my file, or delete it?

What that button above should have said was something like “Save button. Save. You are currently on a button. To click this button, press Control-Option-Space.” See? Proper labelling makes everything so much clearer.

The problem app in this case—the app that made my heart sink—was Mellel, my favorite word processor. It is the word processor of choice in my field because it was developed by an Israeli team and handles right-to-left languages (Hebrew, Aramaic) without a hitch. It also includes a robust set of options for formatting, structuring, and managing citations in long documents like academic papers and dissertations. In short, it was the perfect tool while I had sight.

But the developers had not considered blind users and had not put in the effort to make Mellel VoiceOver compatible by labelling buttons and ensuring that the menus and palettes were navigable. It would not even read the text I had written back to me.  Now I came face-to-face with the realization that I couldn’t use this familiar tool to write my dissertation. Worse, everything I’d written for the last eight years was inaccessible.

For now, I could muddle through. I can still see enough to spot read and navigate the on-screen geography of buttons and banners, can zoom in to read the smaller text. But this is getting harder, and it certainly won’t last forever, I need a word processor that will work when I can no longer see at all. So I need a word processor that is

  • VoiceOver Compatible
  • Robust enough to handle a dissertation-sized project
  • Capable of dealing with all the languages I use

May be a tall order. We’ll see. In upcoming posts, I’ll talk about some of my experiments and experiences with other word processors. As it turns out, I’ve just found one that I think is going to work. Stay tuned for my review, and in the meantime, feel free to share with me any recommendations for accessible word processors that have worked for you!