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The Importance of Keyboard Skills for Computer Access for Users with Visual Impairments

As a computer user with a visual impairment, the ability to use the computer keyboard to both get around and issue commands is critical. Particularly if you will be using a screen reader, you will rely on keyboard commands instead of a mouse to get your computer work done. If you have spent your life as a “hunt-and-peck” typist, you will want to develop at least some touch-typing skills.

Windows and Mac keyboards share most of the same keys. All of the standard letter, number, and punctuation keys familiar to most typists are usually arranged in the same order on computer keyboards. A computer keyboard has a number of extra keys, however, and the number and function of these keys differs based on the kind of computer you have and the operating system you're using. Here are a few basics:

The Windows Keyboard: An Overview

On a Windows keyboard, moving left from the spacebar you will find the Alt key, the Windows Logo key, and the left Control key. Smaller keyboards without a separate number pad (where the numbers are arranged like those on a calculator or an adding machine) on the right may also have a key labeled FN to the extreme left. Going up along the far left column of keys, you will find the Shift key, the Caps Lock key, the Tab key, the Grave Accent key, and then the Escape key. To the right of the Escape key and running across the top of the keyboard you will find the F1 through F12 keys.

Returning to the spacebar and moving right you will find the right Alt key, the Windows Application key, and then the right Control key. Moving just a bit more to the right, there will be a grouping of Left, Right, Up, and Down Arrow keys. On some keyboards the Arrow keys are arranged in an inverted “T” arrangement, with the Left, Down, and Right cursor keys in a line, and the Up cursor key situated just above the Down key. On others keyboards they are arranged in more of a diamond formation, with the Down key positioned just a tad lower than the Left and Right cursor keys.

Here are a few typing tutorial programs for Windows that you might consider:

All of the above tutorials are Windows only. Unfortunately, to date we are not aware of any accessible typing tutors available for Apple computers.

The Apple Keyboard: An Overview

The Command key is to the immediate left of the spacebar on the Mac keyboard, the Option key is one key further to the left, and then you will find the left Control key.

Just as on the Windows keyboard, going up along the far left column of keys, you will find the Shift key, the Caps Lock key, the Tab key, the Grave Accent key, and then the Escape key.

To the right of the Escape key and running across the top of the keyboard you will find the F1 through F12 keys.

Returning to the spacebar and moving right you will find the right Command key, the Option key, and then the right Control key. Moving just a bit more to the right, there will be a grouping of Left, Right, Up, and Down Arrow keys.

Computing Without a Mouse: Using Keyboard Shortcuts

Both Windows and OS X include keyboard shortcuts that enable you to perform most computer functions from the keyboard. Screen reader and magnifier programs also use keyboard shortcuts—we'll discuss those commands later in this guide. First, let’s take a look at some of the most useful operating system keyboard shortcuts.

Running Microsoft Windows from the Keyboard

If you are accustomed to using a mouse to run Windows, you may be pleasantly surprised by just how well you can get along without one. For example, if you’ve ever spent any time minimizing a collection of windows down to taskbar icons so you can see your desktop, you may be surprised to learn you can accomplish the same task with a quick press of Windows + M which will minimize all applications at once, or Windows + D, which will bring your Windows desktop to the forefront.

Here are several more of our favorite Windows keyboard shortcuts.

  • The Windows Logo key: When pressed, it’s like clicking the Windows Start button. Begin typing to perform a search, or press the Tab or Left Arrow key for other options.
  • Alt: You don’t need a mouse to access those menu bars at the top of nearly every Windows application. The Alt key will take you to the very first option. Use the Arrow and Tab keys to find the command you wish to issue. Notice that many of these commands offer additional keyboard shortcuts, such as CTRL + O to Open a file, CTRL + S to save it, and CTRL + P to print a document.
  • Tab and Shift + Tab: These keyboard commands will move you option by option through many application options. For example, when composing an e-mail in most e-mail applications, pressing the Tab key is a fast way to move from the To, From, Subject, message text, and other fields. Shift + Tab will move you in reverse through the same fields. Additionally, when you surf the Web, the Tab and Shift + Tab keys will move you up and down the webpage one link, combo box, text entry field, or other element at a time.
  • Alt + Tab and Shift + Alt + Tab: If you have more than one Windows application open at the same time, use these key combinations to cycle your way through them. Hold down Alt or Alt + Shift and hit Tab to cycle through each open window in turn. Release all keys when you reach your destination window.
  • Windows + T: This key combination will move you directly to your taskbar, where you can open an application that has been pinned there or switch to another running application quickly.
  • Alt + F4: This exits an application and closes its window.
  • Alt + Spacebar: This presents you with the options to Move, Size, Minimize, Maximize, or Close the active application window.
  • Shift + Arrow keys: When working with text, if you hold down the Shift key while using the Left or Right Arrow keys, text will be highlighted character by character as if you selected it with a mouse in the same direction. Shift + Left or Right Arrow + CTRL will highlight text a word at a time. Holding down the Shift key while using the Up or Down Arrows highlights text one line at a time.
  • CTRL + C, CTRL + X, and CTRL + V: Even devoted mouse users enjoy using these keyboard alternatives for copying (CTRL + C), cutting (CTRL + X), and pasting (CTRL + V) text and/or files.
  • The Windows Application or Shift + F10 key: Many Windows keyboards include an Application key immediately to the right of the right Alt key. Pressing this key is like pressing your right mouse button to call up a list of program options. If you do not have an Application key, pressing Shift + F10 will accomplish the same thing.
  • The Enter key: In most places where performing a left mouse click is required, pressing the Enter key will perform the same task. Other times you will need to use your screen reader’s left click shortcut, which we will discuss later.

This list is just a selection of the Windows keyboard shortcuts that are available.

Running OS X from the Keyboard

If you are accustomed to using a mouse to run your Mac, you may be pleasantly surprised by just how well you can get along without one. For example, if you’ve ever spent any time minimizing a collection of OS X applications to clear the clutter from your desktop, you may be surprised to learn you can accomplish this task with a single shortcut, Command + Option + M, which minimizes all of your active windows to the dock.

Here are several more of our favorite OS X keyboard shortcuts.

  • Control + F2: You don’t need a mouse to access those menu bars at the top of nearly every application. Press Control + F2 to go directly to the Apple Menu. Use the Right and Left Arrow keys to move between the menus, then press Enter to make a selection. Notice that many of the menus offer additional keyboard shortcuts, such as Command + O to open an application or a file, Command + S to save a file and Command + P to print it.
  • Tab and Shift + Tab: These keyboard commands will move you option by option through many application options. For example, when composing an e-mail in the Apple Mail program, pressing the Tab key is a fast way to move through the To, From, Subject, message text, and other fields. Shift + Tab will move you in reverse through the same fields. Additionally, when you surf the Web, the Tab and Shift + Tab keys will move you up and down the webpage one link, combo box, text entry field, or other element at a time.
  • Command + Tab and Shift + Command + Tab: If you have more than one Mac application open at the same time, use these key combinations to cycle your way through the various open windows. Hold down the Command or Shift + Command keys to Tab through each open window in turn, and release all keys when you reach your destination window.
  • Command + Q: This is the keyboard command to exit an application and close its window.
  • Shift + Arrow keys: When working with text, if you hold down the Shift key while using the Left or Right Arrow keys, text will be highlighted character by character as if you passed over it with a mouse in the same direction. Shift + Left or Right Arrow + Option will highlight text a word at a time. Holding down the Shift key while using the Up or Down Arrows highlights text one line at a time.
  • Command + C, Command + V, and Command + X: These shortcuts copy (Command + C), paste (Command + V), and cut (Command + X) text and/or files. If you wish to move the object, use Command + Option + V.
  • The Enter key: In most places where performing a left mouse click is required, pressing the Enter key will perform the same task. Other times you will need to use VoiceOver’s left click shortcut, which we will discuss later.
  • Command + Spacebar: This is the shortcut to summon Spotlight, the Mac system search function. Want to send an e-mail? Type "mail" in the Spotlight text entry field and Mail will likely be at the very top of the results list.

These are just a selection of all of the Mac OS X keyboard shortcuts.

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