This blog post was written by Alex Li, Senior Accessibility Policy and Standards Strategist at Microsoft. Alex works with national and international standards organizations to improve the level of accessibility for people with disabilities.
When I entered the field of accessibility ten years ago, the first golden rule I learned was that a keyboard must control all software and content features.
Today, this golden rule is found throughout accessibility public policy. But, it is time to re-examine the underlying assumptions of this once undisputable idea. Let’s start by looking at problems it was supposed to solve.
The first issue was that a mouse and similar pointing devices would not work if a user couldn’t see what a pointing device highlighted. Keyboard accessibility allowed individuals with no vision to use computing devices if they could receive appropriate audio feedback and distinguish keys through tactile feedback.
But, the development of touch interface coupled with audio feedback showed that blind users could effectively navigate and control computers and tablets without a keyboard. This new approach provided a more natural user interface and audio feedback with or without a keyboard.
Keyboard accessibility was also supposed to help users with limited fine-motor control, who couldn’t accurately manipulate a mouse and found a keyboard easier to use. But, a keyboard is hardly the only option these days. Voice recognition has been available as a built-in feature and a separate product for a long time. And Kinect introduced a whole new way to interact with a computer, through gestures. Finally, eye-gazing technology is becoming more mainstream. All of these options have strengths and weaknesses, but there is no reason to require a keyboard over these other alternatives.
Other input hardware, such as puff-and-sip, imitates keyboard commands and can make sense for operating systems designed around a keyboard. But, when that isn’t the case, input options should reflect an operating system’s primary interaction model: gesture; speech; or touch. It makes little sense to use keyboard commands when a keyboard isn’t the main input method.
I am not suggesting that keyboard accessibility is irrelevant. But, it is just one of many possible solutions that can make computers more accessible for users with limits on their vision or motor control. As we consider legal and technical accessibility requirements, we should recognize that keyboard accessibility should not be a universal solution or a strict requirement.