While many people associate assistive technology with specialized devices that are expensive or hard to find, many mainstream technology devices have started supporting accessibility features and built-in assistive technology that can make specialty tools more financially and publicly accessible for all. I spend a large part of my day interacting with both physical and digital keyboards for writing and communicating, but also for using assistive technology and accessibility features with full keyboard access. Here are features to look for when choosing a keyboard for users with vision loss and how to make keyboards easier to see, as part of my ongoing Mainstream Technology and Low Vision post series.
Size of keyboard
The most common keyboard sizes are full size (104 keys), Tenkeyless/TKL (87 keys), and 60% (68 keys). Full keyboards feature a number pad, while the TKL keyboard does not. The 60% keyboard is common for custom keyboard layouts and does not contain the additional function keys or up/down/left/right arrow keys.
I personally prefer to use a full-size keyboard because I like the larger size of the keyboard and the fact I can use the number pad to quickly type in information. Some adaptive keyboards may come in larger sizes than the full size keyboard and have additional keys for assistive technology features.
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Type of keycaps
Keycaps are small pieces of plastic, metal, or other material that cover the keyswitches of the keyboard. Keycaps come in a few diffferent profiles, including:
- Concave with fingertip-sized indents in the top
- Flat, straight tops
The best keycaps for low vision are a matter of personal preference, so I recommend trying out a few different keyboards and keycap styles to see which one is the most comfortable to type on. Another feature to consider is the spacing of the keycaps- how far apart the keycaps are can also play a role in how comfortable it is to type on the keyboard
Wired or wireless keyboard?
Wireless keyboards use a USB receiver or Bluetooth connector to connect the keyboard to the device. Bluetooth keyboards can be connected to multiple different types of devices, including tablets, mobile phones, laptops, and similar devices, while keyboards with a wireless USB receiver can only be connected to devices that have a USB port.
Wired keyboards feature a USB connection and are plugged directly into the computer, and can’t be moved around as easily as wireless keyboards. Some environments such as school exams may require the use of a wired keyboard instead of a wireless keyboard.
Keyboard letters size/font size
Even though users may not need to look at the keyboard while typing, it’s still important to have a way to read the keyboard letters/font size. Some keyboards can be purchased with built-in large print keycaps, though there are also options for adding large print labels to existing keyboards. This can include:
- Vinyl stickers
- Tactile bump dots for orientation purposes- some people put these on the F and J keys to encourage proper typing technique, or to other keys for identification purposes
- Keyboard covers
- Braille stickers for dual media users
- Adaptive keyboard kits that have additional high contrast/tactile labels
Color of keys/letters
High contrast color schemes such as black and white or black and yellow are popular choices for keyboard users with low vision, though there are several different keyboard color options available on the market. Another popular choice for low vision users is a classroom keyboard, which features different colored rows for each section of the keyboard and is often used when learning to type.
Backlit keys/RGB keys
Backlit keys/RGB keys light up while a user is typing and can make it easier to see letters in low-light environments. Users who are photosensitive to bright and/or flashing lights may want to avoid using RGB keyboards that have a flashing or color changing effect as these can be disorienting to look at, though the colored lights can help with identifying keys and key rows.
Dictation shortcut/other keyboard shortcuts
Some mainstream keyboards come with a dictation shortcut or other keyboard shortcuts to make it easier to input information. This is a great tool for physical and digital keyboards and can help with streamlining the text input process.
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Use of a stand/adjustable display angle
Another thing to consider when choosing a keyboard with low vision is the position of the keyboard and ergonomics of the device. I prefer to use a keyboard stand to display my keyboard at an angle instead of flat on my desk, as this feels more comfortable to write on for long periods of time. Some users may prefer to add a wrist rest to their keyboard to make it easier to type for long periods.
Summary of features to consider when choosing a keyboard for low vision
- Size of keyboard/keyboard layout
- Types of keycaps and their spacing
- Connection type- wired or wireless
- Keyboard letters/font size- can the user identify the location of keys on the keyboard?
- Color of keys/letters
- Backlit keys/RGB keys- keys with additional light may be easier to read/identify
- Support for a dictation shortcut and other shortcut keys
- Use of a stand/adjustable angle