With the popularity of touchscreen devices, on-screen keyboards have become a common way of entering text, while physical keyboards are more commonly used for writing longer passages of text.
However, many individuals, for various reasons, are unable to use a standard keyboard or a touchscreen. These reasons can range from differentiated movement or motor control to hand and finger strength. For many people, an alternative keyboard can be one solution, but for others using a virtual or on-screen keyboard may be the way to go. An onscreen keyboard generally appears on the same display used for programs and will remain permanently visible. The keyboard can then be accessed using the computers’ pointer device. The pointer may be activated by using a standard mouse, or through the use of alternative devices such as a trackball or a switch.
Some on-screen keyboards are for typing text and some on-screen keyboards are for navigating the computer—opening programs or clicking on links, for example. Other on-screen keyboards are those that come as part of communication packages for non-verbal communication.
Questions to consider when choosing an onscreen keyboard
- Is it mainly for text input or also for computer navigation?
- How will the on-screen keyboard be used? (e.g., pointing devices or in scanning mode using a switch). Consider whether a scanning mode would be required.
- Is it programmable? (i.e., can you customize keys to perform specific commands/actions?) How easy is it for a student, parent, or teacher to program keys themselves if appropriate?
- Does it support a large variety of input devices, including switches?
- Have you considered whether it is an onscreen keyboard or an alternative physical keyboard, which will best suit your needs?
- Does it have word prediction software built-in to speed up the typing?
- What languages does it support?
- How are the keys and items arranged? Are they arranged in a way that is logical to the student and minimizes the amount of physical effort required? Is there flexibility to change the arrangement?
- Does it provide feedback that a key has been pressed (e.g., letter or word echo, auditory feedback, colour change, etc.)
- Will the keyboard block a portion of the desktop or open software programs? Is there an easy way to rearrange the windows so that this doesn’t get in the way of using the computer? Are two screens appropriate (one dedicated to the keyboard) or not?
- Does it allow customization of the size, shape, borders, colour, layout, and number of keys? Can the keys have text and/or images? Can the colour and size of the font be adjusted?
- Is there a single page of keys/commands or multiple pages? Is the student likely to do better with a simpler layout or more items on a single page?
- What is the learning curve for using the software, especially if using switch scanning?
- Is the student directly touching the screen? Are there any positioning requirements? (e.g., is the angle of the keyboard adjustable? Does the device need a mount?)
- Is a keyguard needed? Is it available?
- For users with other computer access needs, is it compatible with other required technologies? Are there potential issues that may need to be resolved (e.g., using screen magnification software may result in the user not seeing the keyboard and the place they are typing at the same time without the appropriate set-up)
- Is it compatible with your computer or device’s operating system? Is it compatible with the software or apps it controls (in the case of a keyboard that completes navigation functions)?
- Is there a trial period or demo copy for testing out the software?
- How will you get support if you need it? (e.g., a technician in the school, a local vendor, by telephone, by email, remote access, etc.)
- How much do upgrades cost? Is there any software management agreement or upgrade package that can be purchased?
Manufacturers of On-screen Keyboards
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AssistiveWare – KeyStrokes (Mac)
BeEnabled – beKEY (Windows)
Comfort Software Group – Comfort On-Screen Keyboard (Windows)
Corrallo Software – VirtualKeyboard (Mac)
Crick Software Inc – Super Keys (Windows)
Innovation Management Group, Inc. – OnScreen (Windows)
MountFocus Information Systems – MountFocus Keyboard Designer (Windows)
Origin Instruments Corporation – SofType (Windows)
Sensory Software International, Ltd. – Grid (Windows)
TobiiDynavox – Communicator (Windows)
Free/Open Source Software
Built-In On-Screen Keyboard
Did you know? That there are built in on-screen keyboards available for free on your computer. Learn more about the accessibility features of your computer here.