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Apple’s New Touch Bar May Present Usability Challenges For Blind Users

The TouchBar in the new MacBook Pro may be flashy, but is it any more usable than traditional function keys for the vision impaired?
The Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pro. Image: Apple

When Apple recently announced that its new MacBook Pro will have a touch-enabled OLED strip of glass built into the top strip of the keyboard in lieu of physical function keys, users took note. One common concern is that the Escape key will not be available in all contexts, with users having to click the desktop to make it appear.

Blind users had their own set of concerns. The keyboard command for toggling VoiceOver (the screen-reading technology integrated into macOS) is Command + F5, which would be difficult to find without being able to physically feel the F5 key.


And while Apple has confirmed that the Touch Bar will work with VoiceOver—users can activate it by holding the Command key and pressing the Touch ID button three times or by double-tapping the Touch Bar with three fingers—it's not a given that the touch-sensitive OLED strip is any more effective than a traditional row of function keys.

Léonie Watson, principal engineer at the accessibility agency The Paciello Group, suggested that the touch interfaces are slower for blind users like herself than for sighted keyboard users. "There's a huge degradation in typing efficiency," she said, noting that VoiceOver users would have to wait for the screen reader to identify the Touch Bar key before they're able to type. (Watson did note, however, that this comparative typing inefficiency hasn't prevented the iPhone and iPad from becoming popular among blind users.)

And because the Touch Bar only has limited space, Watson believes blind users may eventually be able to learn the position of the "keys" it displays in its various configuration, and that muscle memory will help with locating the correct "key."

While the Touch Bar may present accessibility challenges, Noel Runyan, an access technology engineer who is blind, believes some of these challenges might be able to be addressed through software accommodations.

"As with iPhones, tactile feedback in the form of vibration of the Touch Bar panel or of the whole keyboard case might be helpful for some users who are deaf-blind," said Runyan. Haptic feedback in the Touch Bar "keys" that simulate a mouse click might reinforce those interactions—something that could be helpful for sighted users who are more comfortable with physical keys. Runyan also suggested that tactile guide strips, such as rubber dots affixed to the Touch Bar, could help users find "keys," though this could become more difficult when key positions change within specific apps.

"For some users who are blind," he added, "the functions of the Mac Touch Bar might have to be accomplished through special handling by their screen review software and external refreshable braille display."

For its part, Apple sells accessibility accessories in its shop, even though the accessories are made by third party vendors.