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!

6 thoughts on “My Quest for the Perfect Word Processor: Act One

  1. Eric, Are there special interest groups in online or locally that have investigated this? I know that your requirements are much more advanced than normal. Would the developers of the editor you use work with you to make it screen reader friendly?

    1. Peter,
      Yes, there are groups that advocate for accessibility and offer consulting. Unfortunately it’s still voluntary on the part of the developers, especially in countries without equivalents to the ADA (I’m not sure where Israel sits on this). I reached out to the developers of Mellel, but received no reply.

  2. My heart sank too! Especially at the thought of eight years of work. I’m excited to hear about the rest of the story, and how you persevering through helps others! You are a great writer.

  3. Wow! I love your reviews and am looking forward to seeing the next one! I’m also going to link this on my Mac accessibility page if you don’t mind. If you find that Mellel improves, please give an update–I am planning an update to my Mac, but I am also short on time to keep up with testing and transcription in addition to teaching. It helps to be acquainted with someone who is already using the tools.

    1. Thanks, Sarah! Link away—I’d be happy to help anyone who’s interested. I hear you on the time issue. Luckily we don’t all need to do all the work for ourselves! I think I’ve just found a really neat tool for writing that I will review soon.

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