Person with a physical disability using a computer

Assistive Technology Focus: Keyboard

2 Jun 2020

Imagine not being able to use a mouse or touch-pad to use your computer. Folks with motor disabilities, vision issues–including blindness– or even a broken hand are not able to use a mouse to point to items on the screen, click on check-boxes or “right click.” This is where the trusty keyboard comes in–and considering that early computers did not have mice–it makes sense that a keyboard has the same functionality as a mouse. The keyboard is commonly referred to as the (almost) universal input device because of the wide range of users able to use it, regardless of ability.

But just because this functionality exists, doesn’t mean that all websites, software, apps and games are automatically compatible with a keyboard. And that’s where web development has users with disabilities behind–by not ensuring websites are fully functional with a keyboard. 

The main keys used are: Tab, Enter, the four arrow keys and the space bar, but there are MANY key commands that allow keyboard users a similar experience to that of mouse users. The tab key allows users to navigate through interactive elements, the enter key is the way to submit a form or open a link, the arrows help users go up and down through drop down lists, grids or forms, and the space bar is another way to activate buttons. 

Here’s a video of a keyboard user browsing a web page. It’s fascinating to see all the ways the keyboard replaces a mouse:

Video by Distance Distance via YouTube. Captions availible.

Open up a website, put your cursor in the address bar and start hitting the Tab key to navigate through the page’s UI components. In general the “tab order” of a website is determined by the order the code is presented in the Document Object Model (DOM). But if alterations need to be made the “tabindex” tag can be used to add it to a list of elements that a user can tab to. For a more technical overview on tab order, visit the Web Accessibility Initiative’s site.

By far, my favorite keyboard command is CTRL Z, otherwise known as “undo.” The ability to reverse an accidental delete truly is my safety net. I find it is much easier to hit those two keys simultaneously than to drag my mouse up to the top of my screen and click on the curvy “undo” arrow. I am able to choose how I use my keyboard and my mouse, but for those who do not have the option, ensuring that our websites and other technology are usable with a keyboard is vital for inclusion.