In our third post from our browsing with assistive technology series, we discuss browsing with a keyboard.
Keyboards can be plugged in, built-in or attached wirelessly to desktop computers, laptops and mobile devices. They enable access to the entire operating system and applications, including browsers and web content, for people who do not use a mouse.
Who uses a keyboard
Most people will use a keyboard. However, people who have limited or no use of a mouse or touch may rely on a keyboard to interact with their device.
People with permanent disabilities that affect arm movement or dexterity will use a keyboard. This includes people with Cerebral Palsy, people who are paraplegic or quadriplegic, have arthritis or Parkinson's disease.
Keyboards are also used by people with temporary limitations such as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), fractured or broken wrists, or damaged tendons. People with situational limitations may also use a keyboard; for example, if their mouse is broken.
(Credit: WAI Perspectives: Keyboard compatibility)
Unlike standard keyboards, ergonomic keyboards come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and are designed to fit you, rather than you having to fit the keyboard.
The shape and fit of an ergonomic keyboard is designed to remove the strain you might experience on your hands when using a standard keyboard. They can have concave or tapered keys, well-spaced keys, or split keypads for the left hand and right hand.
Ergonomic keyboards are used by people with permanent disabilities such as Cerebral Palsy or limited dexterity and are popular with people with temporary disabilities such as RSI.
Navigating with a keyboard
Navigating with a keyboard is very different from navigating with a mouse. When you use a mouse, you choose where to point it, follow the visible cursor until you get where you want, then interact with the content.
When you use a keyboard, your actions are constrained by the order in which content is coded. Unlike with a mouse, you cannot choose where your focus goes. You can only navigate sequentially through focusable page elements including links, buttons and form inputs. You cannot jump between headings, lists, links, or form inputs the same way mouse users or people who use a screen reader can. Read browsing with a desktop screen reader and browsing with a mobile screen reader to find out more.
The Tab key is used to navigate to the next focusable element and Shift + Tab is used to move to the previous focusable element. Enter is used to activate links and the Enter or Space keys to activate buttons. The arrow keys are used to navigate components such as menus, sliders, and tab panels.
When navigating web pages, visible focus changes help you track where you are. People also expect the reading order to flow from top to bottom and left to right. If the focus is not visible or logical, you can quickly become lost on a page. Try using the Tab key to tab around this page, you'll notice that links that receive focus change visibly, so you know where you are.
It can also be very frustrating when there are buttons, links or form inputs that cannot be reached or cannot be activated by the keyboard.
Unless focus is on a button, the Space key scrolls more content into view. The Page Up and Page Down keys can also be used to do this. It's important to remember that these keys only bring more content into view. They do not move keyboard focus (which remains on the last focusable element to be navigated to using the Tab or Shift + Tab keys).
British Sign Language (BSL) version of "Browsing with a keyboard"
macOS and a keyboard
Unlike Windows, keyboard support needs to be enabled on macOS. If it is not enabled you can only TAB into the form inputs and not the links, buttons and controls. To do this go to Apple menu > Settings > Keyboard > Shortcuts and select "Use keyboard navigation to move focus between controls".
Using keyboards with other input devices
People often use a keyboard in combination with another input device. This is quite common as keyboard navigation on its own is limited. Alternative devices can range from voice input, pointing devices and switches to even a mouse for people with limited use of a mouse.
What devices people use, and when, will vary depending on what tasks they are doing. For example, someone with Cerebral Palsy or RSI might prefer to use speech recognition to enter text like a search term, then use the keyboard to navigate the search results.
Some people may not be able to use their hands with a keyboard and instead use a pointing device attached to their head or in their mouth to tap the keys.
(Credit: WAI Perspectives: Keyboard compatibility)
Skip links provide a way for keyboard users to bypass repeated web content, including main navigation and search, and move directly to the main content area.
Given how limited keyboard navigation is and how it forces sequential navigation, skip links can be very important for sighted keyboard users, more so than screen reader users who have many other keyboard shortcuts available to them. Try using the Tab key now to tab to the top of the TetraLogical page where a skip link becomes visible on keyboard focus
People use keyboards because they have limited or no use of the mouse.
Ergonomic keyboards come in all sorts of shapes and sizes to fit what people need.
Keyboard navigation is limited, so it is common for people to use a keyboard combined with another form of input.
Keyboard navigation is sequential, moving through content in the order it appears in the source code of the page. In western cultures, people expect the content order to go from top to bottom, left to right and to be able to track visible focus.
Shortcuts like skip links are useful for keyboard users as they help bypass repeated content across pages.
Updated Thursday 2 March 2023.
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