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Using VoiceOver to Evaluate Web Accessibility

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VoiceOver is a screen reader program that comes on new Mac computers, iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches. This article is designed to help users who are new to VoiceOver learn the basic controls for testing web content, and to serve as a reference for the occasional VoiceOver user.

While reading this article, keep a few things in mind:

  • This article does not contain a comprehensive list of VoiceOver shortcuts. It does provide a list of the essential commands that new or novice VoiceOver users should know. For a more comprehensive list of VoiceOver keyboard shortcuts, see the VoiceOver Commands Chart. The VoiceOver Getting Started Guide is also available.
  • If you are new to screen readers, plan on spending some time (perhaps several hours) becoming comfortable using VoiceOver. Don't get discouraged if things still seem confusing after only a few minutes. Slow down the reading speed and take your time.
  • While VoiceOver is available on most Apple platforms, this guide will primarily focus on using the OS X version of VoiceOver.

Getting Started

The method to start (or stop) VoiceOver will vary based on the type of Apple computer you have. For newer computers triple-click the TouchID button to start VoiceOver. On computers without a TouchID button press Command + F5—if on a laptop you may need to additionally press the fn (function) key to activate F5. VoiceOver can also be enabled by going to System Preferences > Accessibility > VoiceOver and selecting Enable VoiceOver.

The VoiceOver Activation keys (called VO keys) are control + option. These keys are used to access special VoiceOver commands and functions and will be referenced simply as VO. For example, VO + H (or control + option + H) will open the VoiceOver Help menu.

While working in VoiceOver, keep the following in mind:

  • VoiceOver currently functions best with the Safari web browser. VoiceOver works with other browsers, but some errors may be introduced. VoiceOver can also access most OS X native applications and functions. This article will only focus on accessing web content with Safari.
    • You must enable full keyboard accessibility before testing with Safari. In the Safari menu, select Preferences > Advanced > Accessibility and check Press Tab to highlight each item on a webpage.
  • Remember that screen reader users typically do not use a mouse. As you become more comfortable with VoiceOver, try using only the keyboard.
  • Most browser shortcut keys will work when using VoiceOver.


There are dozens of keyboard shortcuts that allow you to read web content. The following is a list of essential reading shortcuts. With these shortcuts, you should be able to read through most content.

  • VO + A: Start reading
  • control: Stop Reading
  • VO + : Read next item
  • VO + : Read previous item
  • VO + P: Read paragraph
  • VO + S: Read sentence
  • VO + W: Read word (press W multiple times to spell words alphabetically and phonetically)
  • VO + B: Read from top to current location
  • VO + Home: Jump to top of page (on laptop keyboards, fn + is Home)
  • VO + End: Jump to bottom of page (on laptop keyboards, fn + is End)
  • VO + command + / : Select speech setting option (speaking rate, voice, pitch, etc.). Use VO + command + / to modify the selected speech setting

You may want to practice reading through the content on this page with VoiceOver right now.


Every image that conveys content or has a function on a page needs alt text. Navigate or listen through the following page to experience how VoiceOver behaves with various images, both with and without alternative text.

Image examples and practice

Data Tables

The cells of data tables can be navigated using VO + the arrow keys. If a table has proper table headers, they will be read automatically as the table is explored in Safari. VO + C will also read the column headers for a cell and VO + R will read the row headers.

VoiceOver has difficulty with spanned row or column headers and when the top-left cell is empty. This may result in incorrect headers being read.

Table examples and practice


Support for correctly-labeled forms is good in VoiceOver. When the <label> element is used to explicitly associate form controls and their descriptions, VoiceOver will read the appropriate label when that form element is navigated to. If a form control has a visual label that is not associated using the <label> element, VoiceOver will not auto-associate the label to the form control based on proximity. The legend for a <fieldset> will be read for grouped form controls. The title attribute value of unlabeled form controls will be read. If both a title attribute and a label is provided, both will be read.

Form examples and practice


  • Review these pages, section by section. At the end of each section, return to the top and navigate to new sections in different ways. For example:
    • Use the Table of Contents.
    • Use VO + U to navigate by various items in the Rotor.
    • Navigate by headings (VO + command + H).
  • There are a couple of elements in this page that are visually hidden, but which are provided to better orient screen reader users. See if you can identify them (hint: one is right before the breadcrumbs).
  • Subscribe to the WebAIM Newsletter without using your mouse.
  • You can turn on Screen Curtain with VO + shift + F11. This blackens the screen, thus giving you a more accurate experience allowing you to better ensure that the web page is truly accessible through audio only. Enable screen curtain or turn off or ignore the monitor and repeat some of these tasks.

VoiceOver on Mobile

VoiceOver on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad functions much like the desktop version of VoiceOver, except everything is controlled via the touch-screen interface. Some mobile devices also support keyboard functionality. See our article on VoiceOver on Mobile for more details.